Many technology companies have promised customers the magic combination of being able to do more with less. At the first VMworld conference in Europe this year, VMware proved it is leading the field in delivering on this promise. CBR Africa was there to see what the virtualisation fuss is about.
The word virtualisation has different meanings to different people. Way back in IT history, around 1999, an unknown company named VMware launched a virtualisation product for desktops. It was cool. Unfortunately it was also just after the dotcom boom so no-one cared.
Of course virtualisation is not a new technology. IBM was doing it on the mainframe when IBM was the IT industry. But the market decided to go off after decentralised nirvana which saw computing power dispersed all over the place and costs soaring. Now that centralised control is back in vogue, virtualisation is also back.
Virtualisation is everywhere and everyone is doing it, and if they are not, they will be. Most of us know about it as a result of server or even desktop virtualisation where a bit of software called a hypervisor allows you to install as many operating systems as you like - hardware willing. The best-known example would be the ability to run a Windows OS on Apple computers, on top of the Apple OS.
But virtualisation does not end there. Only a fraction of computer users would need to have multiple operating systems running on one PC or laptop, and most of them would do it because they can, not because they have to. An obvious example is a Mac fan running a virtual Windows OS on his Apple computer.
Virtualisation today is all about doing more with less: less power, less hardware, less money, less technical resources. More importantly, it does this from the workstation through to the server, the data centre and even the cloud.
Starting at the basic level, a single server in business is rarely pushed to its limits. Today, IT usually buys a server per application because servers are cheaper than ever and it is easy to configure your system for a particular application. Depending on the purpose for which it is bought, therefore, servers usually function at between 5% and 15% of their capacity. Add a hypervisor to the server and IT can load as many operating systems, each with its own application, sharing hardware resources and utilising them to the max.
A simplistic explanation perhaps, but consider the savings on hardware if only three previously separate servers can be run on one machine (the average is higher). You still need to pay for the application and operating system (unless you use Linux), but you save on hardware, power consumption as well as people as administrators now only need to look after one box.
Expand this to the data centre where companies have many servers they can consolidate. Should a large company have 50 servers and conservatively virtualise its environment by only 50%, that is still half the hardware costs out of the equation. Of course, the average ratio in real consolidation is more and depends on the applications, servers and company involved. In terms of the energy crisis South Africa is facing, that is a considerable reduction in power too, as even idle servers consume most of the power they would at maximum capacity - so let us not forget the power savings when required to cool 50 fewer servers.
Consider too the space implications in terms of less floor space required for the same processing power. Then look at the technical staffing requirements for 50 fewer servers. Then expand this idea to the larger data centre. Consider how hosting companies can make use of virtualisation to offer the same services to clients, as securely, with less resource requirements.
These are the initial benefits of server virtualisation in a nutshell. And with VMware's latest software offering, called Infrastructure 3, companies can do all this and more. More on the product itself will be in this month's issue of Network Times (www.networktimes.co.za
It is fine to look at the benefits mentioned above, but the one issue companies will still struggle with is management. It is good to have fewer bits of hardware to control, but administrators will still need to manage all their servers, virtual or not. Business does not care if you are virtualised or not, it simply wants IT to deliver the service it needs.
VMworld had answers for this problem as well. Not only does VMware provide for the management of servers, it is entering the automation field which will see servers and virtual servers failing over to backup virtual servers without administrative input. And on the management side, VMware Infrastructure also caters for the control of storage servers, or basically any servers used in business today. Already many server vendors are offering solutions with VMware 3i preinstalled. Among these are Dell, IBM and Fujitsu Siemens Computers.
Users looking to simplify their infrastructure should also be on the look out for virtual appliances which offer plug and go functionality in the data centre. Imagine plugging in additional storage in the data centre as easily as you plug a USB device into your PC.
VMware is only the foundation to the virtualised world. Other companies are extending the capabilities of virtualisation with their own services. The reality is that virtualisation is, as it is commonly referred to, the 'most disruptive technology' the industry has seen for a long time. Some companies taking virtualisation to the next level are listed below.
BEA Systems is an enterprise infrastructure software company that focuses on building what it calls the Liquid Enterprise. The company has launched its new BEA LiquidVM architecture, which allows Java applications to run in virtual machines with no operating system. In other words, there is no base operating system that runs the hypervisor, only the Java virtual machine. To see the cost benefits of the LiquidVM approach, surf over to BEA's virtualisation TCO calculator. www.bea.com
LeftHand Networks: LeftHand Networks is an innovative player in the IP storage area network (SAN) market. It introduced its SAN/iQ-powered solutions in 2001 with the ideal that iSCSI SANs should be easy to grow and manage - like the plug-and-play idea above. The idea is everything in the SAN is broken into components which can be added as required. So CIOs can buy the storage and capacity they need and add to it as required. This saves them from buying excess capacity at a premium to cater for future growth. LeftHand Networks' storage networks scale performance along with capacity, from entry-level 6 TB SATA SANs to enterprise-class 100 TB SAS SANs.
Embotics: Embotics V-Commander tracks the lifecycle of virtual machines. It sits above existing management applications and prevents what the company refers to as 'virtual sprawl'. It automates the virtual machine lifecycle management process, allowing administrators to know exactly what they have, where, who is using it and what it does. V-Commander (which integrates with VMware's VirtualCenter management suite) is an 'unintrusive, centralised, policy-based VM lifecycle management system'.
The company is also currently looking at setting up partnerships in South Africa to launch the product here - www.embotics.com
FalconStor offers its continuous data protector (CDP) virtual appliance that provides disk-based data protection to companies needing continuous availability for physical and virtual machines. It makes use or mirroring, snapshot, and database agents in its product. Furthermore, the company's DiskSafe runs on an application server to capture block-level changes made to a system without affecting application performance. It mirrors data to the CDP Virtual Appliance in realtime and takes point-in-time snapshots, which can be used to roll back the system to a desired point in time - www.falconstor.com
More information on each of these companies will be published in the May issue of Network Times.
Although no comment was forthcoming, VMware is also supposedly working with Cisco on network virtualisation.
Other virtualisation players
Other companies are also in the virtualisation game. Microsoft, for example, will be releasing a beta of its Hyper V, virtualisation server with Windows Server 2008. So the hypervisor will be installable with the operating system. Moreover, Microsoft will also be offering four free Windows virtual licences with each edition server licensed. This means companies using Windows-only applications, and Windows Server 2008-capable applications will be able to load four virtual servers on the same hardware while paying for only one. This only applies to the Enterprise edition of Windows Server 2008.
Citrix is also in the virtualisation game, offering server, desktop, application and the technologies to manage all virtualised systems. Having bought XenSource some time back, the company has expanded its scope of operations offering virtualisation from the desktop through to the data centre - although making applications available virtually could be seen simply as an extension of what it has always been doing. However, with Citrix's Provsioning server, it allows multiple desktops to be delivered to hardware or a virtual machine from a single image, with each user's customisations added as a separate distribution.
Apart from server virtualisation technologies and management, VMware also plays in the desktop and application virtualisation game with its new Virtual Desktop Infrastructure and Application Virtualization Technology.
The scope of virtualisation today goes far beyond the scope of this article. Every company will find real benefits from using the technology, if implemented and managed appropriately - which makes this a huge market for service providers, integrators and the like. The real question is, what is your company using virtual technologies for, how soon does it realise its ROI and what is the next step? If there was only one aspect of VMworld attendees walked away with it is that virtualisation is amazing, but its impact on business has only started.