Virtualisation beneficial but complexity can bite

Virtual Windows servers are still just Windows servers, according to Ian Williams, Infrastructure Manager at Victoria's PowerCor

CIOs are turning to server virtualisation in large numbers, but many can't say whether their deployments are successful.

Forty-four percent of companies that have deployed server virtualisation are unsure whether their deployments have been successful, according to a survey published by IT vendor CA. CA's research was conducted by The Strategic Counsel, an independent Canadian research firm, which surveyed 800 organisations around the world.

The survey revealed that 71% of organisations that have transitioned to virtualisation, have deployed or plan to deploy multiple server virtualisation technologies.

Indeed, the rapid adoption of server virtualisation has led to heterogeneous environments that are proving difficult to manage and nearly impossible to assess. CIOs don't have a clear view into how their virtualisation efforts are working. In fact, 28% of organisations polled in the survey that said they deployed virtualisation have either failed to, or are unsure if, they realised a return on investment. And 40% said they have either failed to achieve expected cost savings or they simply couldn't tell.

Even where virtualisation has been anecdotally shown to have delivered value, virtualisation projects often run into hidden issues that may not have been apparent from the beginning of the project.

PowerCor, a Victorian electricity distribution company, invested heavily in VMWare server virtualisation technology last year and successfully slashed server numbers by shifting many of its core network services and legacy applications onto around 125 virtual Windows Server 2003 systems. An additional 75 physical servers manage a range of other applications.

While the rollout has certainly achieved dramatic reductions in capital costs, it has raised other issues over time, according to Ian Williams, IT infrastructure manager at PowerCor. "What we had hoped to see from the project was that outsourcer costs would drop as a consequence of managing less hardware," he explained.

"However, it turns out that most of their efforts are really involved in supporting the operating system, given that the stability of the hardware is reasonably robust. The OS is what requires most of the looking after - and given that Microsoft is still releasing OS patches every month, that's where the majority of the effort is being spent."

Another challenge comes from implementing applications whose vendors refuse to provide support for virtualised environments. While PowerCor's virtualisation project has been a huge success overall - and has relieved pressure on data centre air conditioning, power, UPS and other services - Williams said these issues have continued to remind the company virtualisation isn't a panacea. "Virtualisation will get us some of the way," he said, "but not all the way."

A tendency for virtualisation to crop up without formal management processes may also be to blame for virtualisation falling short of initial expectations. Andi Mann, an analyst at consultancy Enterprise Management Associates, said heterogeneous virtualised environments are initially the result of bad practices.

"There's a lack of control in IT that's allowing different types of virtualisation to spawn up without going through normal processes," Mann said. "System administrators are just firing up virtual machines that they download for free. They have problems with workloads and they've got deadlines to meet, and they do not have enough time to do testing."

CA's research revealed that heterogeneous virtualised environments can lead to server sprawl; increased configuration and administration requirements and workloads; difficulty with reporting, visibility and metrics for measuring server efficiency, performance and utilisation; and higher demand for IT staff members with multiple skills sets.

"I do think that some companies approach the whole [virtualisation] process in a much more haphazard way than others do," said Charles King, principal analyst at research firm Pund-IT, who studied one company that stumbled badly with its first implementation.

The company tried to virtualise a bunch of applications on one box without testing it; the box crashed. "They said, 'I guess we should have tested it'," King recalled. "They learned a valuable lesson. They've since instituted a very structured approach to virtualisation with a testing process."

King said CA's findings on heterogeneous virtualisation environments were interesting.

"I think the fact that the virtualisation solutions are heterogeneous reflects the fact that data centres themselves typically deploy multiple types of server hardware," King said. "I don't know of anything that supports virtualisation on every type of server platform out there. Does it make it more difficult? Well it can. What it really points to is the importance of sitting down and planning which servers you want to virtualise, which tools are most effective, and deploying it in a very strategic manner to get a specific kind of results."

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