Virtualization initially caught the industry's attention as a means to consolidate physical servers and centralize data management. After all, what's not to like about increasing your network capacity without actually have to buy new hardware?
But now that virtualization is becoming commonplace, it turns out that there are a range of ancillary benefits that can dramatically lower costs, boost capabilities and simplify operations throughout the enterprise. From virtual SANs to virtual PCs and right down to such esoteric matters as disaster recovery and business continuity, it turns out that the virtual environments being installed now have the potential to continue paying dividends well into the future.
Let's take a look at storage. There's a lot of activity surrounding storage provisioning and file clustering. The same ideas, it seems, that made virtualization so attractive to the server farm can have equal benefits on the storage side. 3Par is one of the firms leading this charge, adding provisioning capabilities to its InForm operating system that drives the InServe and InSpire systems.
Geoff Hough, 3Par's director of product marketing, cautions that there are pitfalls to be avoided when expanding virtualization's reach.
"Extraordinary demands are being placed on IT to do more with less," he told IT Business Edge. "But if you virtualize it in a way that requires 10 touch points instead of one, or in a way that masks, but does not eliminate, underlying complexity, then you have failed to solve the larger problem of ballooning administrative effort. As customers consider virtualization solutions, they must think very carefully about not just the what' of virtualization, but the how' and where.'
Another area gaining interest is the virtual SAN. Here, there are any number of methods under development, from multi-host storage arrays to in-band virtualization engines. While some may caution that the mixed environments that are inherent in virtual systems could lead to management difficulties, firms like Scalent Systems are working around that problem.
"Scalent effectively abstracts the storage access challenge from the existing architecture, putting in a real-time method of reallocating existing resources among servers" said Chandy Nilakantan, Scalent's chief technology officer. "The result is that Scalent makes server connections to storage effectively agnostic to vendor hardware and storage architecture."
Another potentially significant benefit to virtualization is the re-emergence of the thin client architecture. Connecting dumb terminals in the business office to partitioned servers in the data center not only reduces PC capital costs-a looming prospect with the coming of Vista-but goes a long way toward improving disaster recovery and business continuity capabilities.
Once you go virtual, there are all sorts of ways to replicate data from guest to host systems, and vice versa. Coupled with a fault-tolerant system across the WAN or LAN, there's no reason new virtual servers can't be partitioned almost instantly.
"Virtualization provides for quicker recovery from a disruptive event because it allows replication of the production environment at lesser cost, and it is simply faster to boot or reboot a virtualized server than to cold boot a hardware server," said Firooz Ghanbarzadeh, director of technology services and solutions, CDW Corporation, in a recent IT Business Edge interview. "Plus, the reboot can be done remotely. In any circumstance where time to recovery is critical, virtualization offers a distinct advantage."
A new army of virtualized servers, storage systems and desktops will only get you so far, however. With all that data zinging across the same network infrastructure, there are bound to be traffic jams somewhere. That's where the virtual I/O comes in.
The idea is to foster a means, usually under the PCI Express format, to allow a physical end-node device to appear as a multitude of logical devices connected to multiple hosts. Some of the approaches being taken are emulating multiple device drivers in the hypervisor to employing a DMA controller to take the heat off the host processor.
None of this should imply that virtualization is some sort of magic technology that will solve all your problems. Indeed, there is a dark side to virtualization. It won't really save you money in terms of personnel costs or licensing fees. And there is some question regarding virtual server reliability and how well vendors are able to support the virtual solutions they create.
But in terms of efficiency and overall network optimization, it turns out that virtualization has more than one trick up its sleeve.