Virtualisation reality

The transformative technology of virtualisation is already changing the way enterprises provision and manages their IT infrastructure, however is this maturing technology a viable option for businesses in the Middle East?

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By  Sarah Gain Published  March 23, 2005

|~|Kumar---DohaBank2-IN.jpg|~|Virtualisation will benefit the whole financial services industry by speeding up business activities, says Doha Bank’s U.V.K Kumar.|~|Doha Bank broke new ground when it implemented a pioneering virtual storage system back in 2001. The state-of-the-art technology revolutionised the architecture of the bank’s core technology and enhanced reliability, scalability and manageability. It has since supported the financial institution’s rapid deployment of new products and services.

Four years on, IT chief of Doha Bank, U. V. K. Kumar, says the virtual storage has turned out to be a success story for the bank. “We have never looked back. In fact, I would like to see more deployments of this type, not only at Doha Bank, but also at companies across the region. I think this would benefit the whole industry by speeding up business activities.”

As the technology has begun to mature in recent years, virtualisation is starting to attract a lot of attention not only from storage vendors, but also from their customers. Businesses in the Middle East are starting to realise the potential benefits of streamlining their increasingly complex storage architectures and maximising their archiving resources.

“The number of applications that are coming into the industry as a whole are huge and the storage requirements are also shooting up,” adds Kumar. “There are also greater analytics requirements in the financial sector and a lot of data is now required for analysis purposes. Virtualisation allows us the high availability that we need as a bank to rationalise and manage our business processes more effectively.”

Banks and financial institutions in particular, are seeing storage capabilities put under increasing pressure as more stringent regulatory compliance become critical. “Even in the Middle East, with the influx of foreign banks into the region as a whole, there is a growing need for local banks to comply with European regulatory standards such as Basel II," says John Bentley, sales manager for Hitachi Data Systems Middle East.

"The requirement that this produces is that more data to be stored for longer periods of time. This means that storage is becoming more complex and is a matter for serious concern and consideration for organisations that want to remain competitive,” he adds.

Virtualisation entails dividing the resources of a computer into multiple execution environments by applying one or more technologies such as hardware and software partitioning, time-sharing, partial or complete machine simulation or emulation.

In IT terms, virtualisation has several meanings, spanning from hardware, memory, servers, network to storage management. This time, however, it is the possibilities entailed with the virtualisation of servers and, in particular, storage management that is the focus of most deliberation within the IT industry.

The masking of server resources such as the number and identity of individual physical servers, processors and operating systems (OS) from view frees users from having to be aware of these resources, while at the same time optimising resource sharing. Server virtualisation offers this possibility and can often be a better approach than server consolidation. While using existing resources more efficiently, it offers the possibility of future growth.

“It is possible to achieve a great degree of scalability with virtual products. Instead of buying multiple servers, all running their own applications, it is now possible to have a single server and in each partition of the server environment there can be separate applications running. If one application failed it would not actually have a negative impact on any of the other applications,” explains Ferhad Patel, marketing development manager for Intel in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.

For many businesses, the ability of a virtual server to support legacy applications running on older versions of an OS alongside newer applications on the latest OS level, is a very attractive proposition for safeguarding their past investments. It is storage virtualisation of this nature that is now in use at Doha Bank. It is also the most widespread type of virtualisation in use in the Gulf States to date.

Implemented with software applications or by using hardware and software hybrid appliances, the technology can be placed on different levels of a storage area network (SAN), which enables the pooling of physical storage from multiple network storage devices into what appears to be a single storage device. The process can be managed from a central console. ||**|||~|Ferad-Patel---Intel-IN.jpg|~|It is possible to achieve a great degree of scalability with virtual products, says Intel’s Ferhad Patel.|~|Currently, the biggest drawback for SANs is the difficulty in creating heterogeneous environments of servers that can share data. It is difficult for NT and Unix, which use very different file formats, to share data within a subsystem in a SAN environment because of the block-level nature of data transfers.

Storage virtualisation attempts to overcome this problem by addressing a number of other network management issues. Each server is seen as one large repository of data and behaves as though it was directly attached. Organisations in the region are starting to see the feasibility of this type of virtual technology in terms of its simplicity, speed and reliability.

Virtual storage is a logical next step, according to Mousallam Chatty, the IT director for the Al Yousuf Group. “It makes sense — rather than tying the storage to one particular hardware, it is possible to share the storage on any desired hardware from any PC. Users can pull storage from the back end,” he says.

“The technology allows storage resources to be allocated when required to areas of high demand and then reallocated as needs change. It provides greater efficiency by speeding up the server,” Chatty adds.

Virtualisation also enables enterprises to become more dynamic and responsive. This higher level of functionality is something that customers are beginning to demand in their storage facilities, and this is triggering vendors to roll out increasingly powerful virtual storage solutions.

However, the demand for operability does not end with storage architectures. CIOs are looking for more on all levels of their IT infrastructures and are keen to protect their organisation’s investments, while at the same time improving their systems’ capabilities.

“Enterprises want to cut down on personnel costs. Virtualisation needs fewer IT staff to take care of the management of various applications. If an organisation has applications running on one server rather than on three separate servers, this will reduce the work by a ratio of three to one immediately,” Intel’s Patel points out.

Traditionally, the majority of companies have deployed stove-piped applications with their own silo infrastructures. The infrastructure for each application is sized for individual peak load and growth, with additional redundancy for high availability.

This has resulted in organisations operating costly IT infrastructures that are tremendously under-utilised as each application has been designed differently. Mohamed Alojaimi, principle product manager for Oracle Server Technologies, elaborates on this, saying, “The key to success in today’s economic reality is affordability."

"In the past, however, IT departments have used a heterogeneous mix of hardware platforms, software, vendor packages and custom built applications. Even the same software and hardware have been deployed and configured differently for different applications. This has resulted in heterogeneity, which is too expensive to manage,” he adds. ||**|||~|EMC--Mohammed-Amin-IN.jpg|~|ILM is about the “I” in IT, while virtualisation is about the “T”, the technology, says EMC’s Mohammed Amin.|~|By breaking down the physical, one-to-one relationship between the application and the storage device, virtualisation presents a logical image of a storage device to application users. A shared storage model allows for interoperability between storage devices from a multitude of vendors. “This should prove to be a very powerful tool in solving a number of problems involved in managing critical business information,” according to an IDC report.

Offering benefits of increased utilisation, platform independence and lower total cost of ownership, Kumar believes that virtual storage will be an area of great consideration for companies in every business sector.

“Large enterprises such as Doha Bank have a high level of dependency on computers. Virtualisation provides higher availability and better infrastructure management, as well as improving the management of the large volumes of data that have to be stored and later transformed into information. There is also significant flexibility for the introduction of new applications,” he says.

The ability to add new apps is a crucial benefit in the eyes of Mohammed Amin, regional manager for EMC Middle East. Amin says it provides customers with the capacity to build and implement an information lifecycle management strategy (ILM).

“This strategy is the foundation of a flexible infrastructure — one that can be tiered, shared and provide intelligent movement of information — that is where virtualisation comes in. Another way of saying this is that ILM is about the “I” in IT, while virtualisation is about the “T”, the technology,” Amin says.

Businesses in the Middle East, as in many other parts of the world, are still relying on legacy applications. Previously, if enterprises wanted to overhaul their legacy platform, their only option was to migrate old applications to a new hardware or an OS.

With a virtual server, however, the ability to run new applications and OSs can ease the process of updating. “This means that there is no need to worry about compatibility issues and if a company wants to upgrade, they can do so in their own time. They’re under no pressure. Also, if there is a virus or hacker attack in one environment it will not necessarily affect the other partition, so clearly the security is greatly improved,” explains Patel.

The concept behind virtualisation is not new, but it is only now coming into widespread use. From a software perspective, the technology has been ready for around five years, but a lack of low-cost hardware meant that uptake of the technology globally, and particularly in the Middle East, has been slow.

However, over the coming two years, the necessary hardware is going to become readily available. As vendors continue to bring more advanced and comprehensive virtual solutions to the marketplace the concept will become a more viable option for businesses.

IDC estimates the worldwide revenue for storage resource management (SRM), the category under which storage virtualisation falls, will reach US$4.54 billion in 2008, showing a 15.4% compound annual growth rate (CAGR) for the period from 2003 through 2008. In addition, the Organisation for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS), which handles web service technologies, is currently working on the standardisation of virtualisation.

Its operation, led by a technical committee, comprises member companies and groups, accelerating the work of standardisation and in the future may create several technical standards in the field. ||**|||~|John-Bentley--HDS-IN.jpg|~|Storage is becoming more complex and is a matter for serious concern for organisations that want to remain competitive,” says HDS’ John Bentley.|~|Virtualisation serves genuine and practical demands from end users, however education will prove key in ensuring that companies are able to get the best out of the innovative technology.

To this end, some vendors are offering workshops for IT managers to try to raise awareness of the concept. “It is not just hype, although I almost wish it was. All too often companies run out of space and then call us when it is too late,” says Omar Dajani, technical manager for Veritas.

“It is important that providers establish long-term relationships with customers and get to know their entire network so that they offer advice on an ongoing basis, not just in an emergency situation. Many customers simply do not realise just how critical running out of server space can be. In the worst cases, businesses may find themselves unable to process any more transactions and have to actually close down,” Dajani adds.

IDC’s software program manager for the Middle East and Africa, Heini Booysen, concedes that end user instruction will play an important role in the acceptance of virtualisation. “In our region, the virtualisation trend can definitely be seen to be picking up speed and technologically speaking it makes sense to move toward a virtual storage environment as the technology offers more for less. However, awareness levels are still very low in the region and vendors still need to do a lot of market education,” Booysen maintains.

While the Middle East usually tend to trail behind the rest of the world when it comes to the reception of new IT innovations, the potential benefits of virtual solutions are not lost on the region’s CIO. To cope with its rapidly expanding data storage needs, Saudi Arabia’s International Airport Project (IAP) went live with a StorageTek-based solution in 2003.

The solution, which included a virtual storage strategy, requires minimal manual intervention. Deployed by enterprise storage integrator, StorageTek Middle East, it is now delivering greater ease of use and improved data integrity. It has enabled IAP to store, manage and backup mission critical data from the Kingdom’s airports more efficiently.

Clearly then, around the Middle East, some forms of virtualisation technology are already being deployed and large companies in the region view virtual technology as a sound investment prospect. According to IDC, the SRM market was worth US$12.5 million in the Gulf States in 2003 and the research firm expects this market to grow at a healthy CAGR of 23.5% toward 2008, reaching US$35.9 million.

Chatty puts the reluctance of CIO’s to rush into virtualisation products down to over-caution rather than financial reasons. “We do try to keep up with the global trends and I have confidence that we can do so, but sometimes there is a tendency to be cautious in our approach to new technology. We prefer to look before we leap and would rather sit back and watch how new concepts take off before investing,” he reasons.

“The cost of virtual storage is usually higher upfront, but once the infrastructure has been set up, it requires less investment long haul. I always try to look ten to fifteen years down the road and weigh up which option will cost less over that period. It is not impulsive, but I am not working for tomorrow; I am working for 10 years from now, and sometimes it is the case that over time savings can be made by investing slightly more initially,” he adds.

Virtualisation solutions are currently being targeted at large to mid-sized enterprises because, as EMC’s Amin suggests, “Telecom companies, the financial services industry and oil &gas enterprise markets have terabytes of data that needs to be flexibly managed. These types of businesses are implementing ILM strategies and will be very much interested in the capabilities of the new virtual technologies.”

There is in time, however, no reason why the requirement for more advanced storage will not trickle down to smaller organisations. Chatty believes that virtualisation is the direction that all businesses will be heading in. “At the end of the day, businesses the world over are similar in practical terms and every day that goes by, every single one of those businesses adds to the volume of data that it produces and subsequently needs to store,” he notes.

“As virtual storage and virtual servers are gradually taken up elsewhere, companies everywhere, whether large or small, will have to follow suit to remain competitive on the global stage.”

Virtualisation represents the wave of the future for optimising hardware utilisation and data centre agility. Varieties of these types of solution are already delivering substantial value in a wide range of environments worldwide wherever they have been deployed. Now, the technology is ready and businesses in the region are beginning to feel the pressure to improve the efficiency and manageability of their operations.

It is only a matter of time before virtualisation becomes a reality for enterprises in the Middle East. Al Yousuf Groups’ Chatty knows the adoption of virtualisation will be a gradual process. “You cannot change the world in one day – it will be an ongoing process of evaluation and learning,” he enthuses.||**||

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