The server strategy: virtualisation

It is time to look more closely at virtualisation. Jennifer Mears reports

IT execs who have delayed virtualising their x86-based servers for fear the technology is still unproven should put that project at the top of their to-do lists for 2006, as the market for virtualising the low-volume systems heats up.

It’s a combination of factors — the increasing power and stability of the x86 platform, the maturing of virtualisation software and a growing choice of software vendors — that is driving adoption at a surprisingly fast clip, analysts say.

“In 2005 I saw a lot of enterprises dabbling with virtualisation in test and development environments, particularly for server consolidation and cost savings,” says Scott Donahue, an analyst at Tier 1 Research.

“What has surprised me more recently when I’ve talked to enterprise clients is the speed at which virtualisation has actually moved into production environments.”

IDC describes the shift to x86-based server virtualisation as well underway and expects widespread adoption to take place during the next couple of years, without “a five- to ten-year gradual market shift as in other technology areas.” Companies lacking a virtualisation strategy for low-end systems will pay more in the long run, in hardware costs and management headaches, analysts say.

Gartner, for example, estimates that most x86-based servers running a single application — the traditional deployment for these low-end boxes — operate at about a 10% average utilisation rate. Using virtualisation to consolidate workloads into a single box should increase utilisation significantly.

In addition, as the x86 platform itself becomes more powerful, customers should find a growing list of applications appropriate for a virtualised environment. In the last couple of years, systems vendors have stepped up the performance of their low-end systems with dual-core processors and 64-bit support. This year will bring servers with virtualisation technology built in to the silicon, a huge step for the x86 platform, which today can only be virtualised with some fancy — and performance-draining — footwork from software vendors such as VMware and Microsoft.

Having virtualisation capabilities hard-wired into the chip means end users will get better performance out of virtual servers, and software files that contain an operating system and applications. It also means that VMware and its competitors will likely shift their focus to management tools, resulting in more advanced management capabilities down the road.

Today’s management tools enable end users to easily move and copy virtual servers, providing a simple approach to disaster recovery and high availability. But advanced capabilities — such as a faster and more seamless migration of virtual servers among physical systems — are likely to come in the months ahead. Analysts recommend that customers take a close look at management strategies when they choose a virtualisation partner.

“In the next year and a half to two years, the market will be flipping on its head completely ... It will shift from the hypervisor [low-level virtualisation technology] to management,” says Tom Bittman, a Gartner vice president. “So, the focus should be on choosing management tools and automation, not on choosing a hypervisor. That will be a commodity.”

Another development that makes 2006 a key year for deploying x86 server virtualisation is movement among the independent software vendors to make licensing in a virtual environment more user-friendly. Microsoft, for example, late last year announced a new virtualisation-licensing model that stands to slash costs for end-users. Though analysts note that this is a small first step in an evolving discussion, it’s encouraging to see Microsoft make an early move, industry experts agree.

Those still unsure if server virtualisation on x86 systems has moved beyond hype should consider that open source is getting in on the game, with XenSource announcing its first commercial product designed to make it easier for customers to deploy and manage the open source Xen VM technology in corporate networks.

Although VMware has held a nearly uncontested leadership position since 2001, when it introduced the industry’s first virtualisation software for x86-based servers, 2006 will bring end-users more options in virtualising low-end systems. That’s good news from both a price and a performance standpoint.

Software from Microsoft, SWsoft and start-ups such as Virtual Iron and XenSource offer interesting alternatives. With the underlying virtualisation technology becoming available in hardware, management tools from companies such as PlateSpin, Leostream and Platform Computing deserve a closer look. Analysts also expect systems vendors such as Dell and HP to intensify their focus on this area.

Ulrich Seif, CIO at National Semiconductor in California, says Intel’s and AMD’s plans to incorporate virtualisation into their processors, and the maturing of virtualisation software’s features, make slicing and dicing x86 servers a smart move, regardless of the vendor.

Seif brought in VMware last year to consolidate an increasing number of Windows servers and says he has already seen a 33% savings and now has an architecture that is flexible and easier to manage.

“Almost more importantly, [with server virtualisation] you are positioning yourself for future [architectures] that will come naturally with virtualisation: true grid computing; ultimate virus and intrusion detection [the host scanning guest memory for patterns], and software and configuration management,” he says.

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More about AMDDellGartnerHPIDC AustraliaIntelMicrosoftNational SemiconductorPlateSpinPlatform ComputingScott CorporationSWsoftVirtual IronVMware AustraliaXenSource

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