Virtual risk

In the wake of the recent CA-sponsored IDG survey of CIOs on virtualisation adoption, Maria Medvedeva looks at why virtualisation can fail to deliver on its promise when it is not properly managed.

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By  Maria Medvedeva Published  August 9, 2008

There's no doubting the latest hot IT topic - virtualisation is in vogue! What's driving that popularity?

It's because virtualisation technology is tied to the desire for an IT environment that can adapt to a company's changing needs and demands in ways that are quick, flexible and cost-effective.

In truth, however, virtualisation alone can't keep this promise. The dream of virtualisation can only come true when it's combined with comprehensive management that maintains a good balance between virtual and physical environments.

Comprehensive management of all physical and virtual resources is important, particularly in consideration of the following:

1. Nothing works without physics.

Given all the hype surrounding virtualisation technology, people quickly forget that virtual machines (VMs) run on real computers. Therefore, insufficient physical resources will lead to problems in VM operations. For instance, one could encounter a situation in which several loads completely and simultaneously tie up the physical network adapter of the host computer. To recognise and proactively prevent such a problem, the management environment should evaluate and correlate the performance information for the virtual and physical computers alike, in real-time and using historical performance trending.

2. Virtualisation leads to new complexity.

A key objective of virtualisation is to reduce the complexity of IT infrastructures through consolidation. Paradoxically, the complexity increases - initially, at least - because the additional technology level and virtual resources have to be monitored. Traditional datacentre tools are simply not designed for the task.

3. Virtualisation adds to server proliferation.

Virtualisation is intended to improve utilisation on physical machines so that the number of servers can be reduced. Thus we see the irony in consolidating the physical resources and thereby causing VMs to proliferate. This proliferation often occurs because virtual images and machines can be generated and moved with much greater ease than their physical counterparts. However, it's nearly impossible to maintain an accurate overview of the type and number of VMs without some kind of automated management encompassing high-performance discovery and visualisation mechanisms.

4. Heterogeneity inherent in virtualisation.

It is highly uncommon to see an IT organisation rely on only one vendor's virtual technology due to the nature of the business services and priorities they have to support. These virtualisation technologies might even compete with each other, as could be seen in an operating system environment. It is also likely that one can expect two to three element management tools that cover only that specific product. Multiple management tools create complexity, requiring system administrators to have expertise on multiple tools and requiring them to manually correlate management information between these tools.

5. Companies run the risk of establishing a separate administration.

Virtualisation risks the possible consequence of establishing a second world of management in the datacentre, which becomes a second life in the context of system administration. If the administrators allow the collective management of physical and virtual resources to take on a life of its own, it can generate substantially higher business costs for operations, training and staff. The additional costs, as they continue to rise, will undermine the business advantages that a virtual environment can otherwise bring through server consolidation.

6. Virtualisation can compromise compliance and operational security.

Virtualisation, despite its benefits, poses new challenges in every management discipline, and often the proven processes and guidelines are disregarded. Even the issue of updating operating systems - for example, in the installation of critical security improvements - raises questions of process-engineering compatibility in configuration management.

This is particularly true in circumstances whereby Windows or Linux will be running on the server hardware and in the virtual environments. In such cases established backup processes for the physical servers are no longer effective because they don't recognise the transfer of virtualised applications to a storage system with a smaller load. Consequently, the uncoordinated proliferation of VMs can lead to serious violations of licensing conditions for the applications. Moreover, the uncontrolled growth of VMs increases the security risk faced by the infrastructure.

7. Virtualisation encourages a lack of transparency for resource interdependencies.

Virtualisation initiatives are often launched out of the desire to improve hardware load capacity. This, in itself, should not negatively impact the service level. However, administrators should maintain a consistent overview of performance, resource consumption and service quality in order to select the optimal allocation for a VM and its applications.

8. Virtualisation is not a one-way street.

The advantages of virtualisation technology are beyond dispute. However, neither does anyone argue the fact that one of the costs of virtualisation can be server performance.

Therefore, virtualisation may not represent the ideal trade-off for every application area, particularly in regard to performance and availability. Depending on when they are needed, it might make more sense for some business-critical IT services to run in either a virtual or physical environment. Accordingly, the provisioning function in the management environment must support the transfer of the load in either direction.

9. Virtualisation frees up "green" potential.

A prerequisite for a consolidated, optimised use of resources is that managers know which resources are available, as well as where and how they are utilised. This information should first be recorded in detail and then interpreted in the management environment, so as to form a basis for the consolidation of IT resources. In addition to the inherent cost savings, consolidation promotes a more environmentally-friendly, sustainable approach to managing resources (Green IT).

Each standard server a company shuts down represents an average annual CO2 savings of 12.5 tons (according to the EPA Report "Data Centre Energy Efficiency" presented to the U.S. Congress in July 2007). That figure is equivalent to the amount of CO2 absorbed by 55 trees in a single year.

10. Virtualisation is not an end in itself.

Virtualisation ultimately serves the objective of allocating available IT resources for the purpose of optimisation. However, a business can only realise the maximum benefit of this technology by integrating it into a comprehensive solution for datacentre automation and IT infrastructure management initiatives.

The comprehensive management of physical and virtual resources unleashes the potential of virtualisation to create a highly efficient IT system that adjusts its resource allocation dynamically, depending on the individual priorities of each business process.

Virtually statistical

A CA-sponsored survey of IT managers from various companies reveals that virtualisation technology is arriving on a broad front at datacentres, according to Medvedeva: "Nearly 59% of CIOs from EMEA, US and APAC, interviewed by IDG Research Services within the framework of the ‘CIO2CIO Perspectives' series reported recent investments in virtualisation initiatives. Their motives are driven by the capabilities of their systems.

The survey also confirmed that, following early positive experiences, virtualisation is increasingly entering business-critical service operations. More than half the CIOs surveyed plan to integrate virtualisation into business-critical services within the next 18 months.

Virtualisation can trigger an increase in the administrative workload. Under such circumstances, from a business perspective it becomes impossible to implement a consistent picture of the IT landscape regarding performance, resource consumption and service quality.

CIOs are well aware of this drawback. Nearly three-quarters (73%) of the European IT managers surveyed by IDG Research Services are convinced their organisations must have the ability to centralise the management of heterogeneous virtual and physical environments. Operating efficiency and capacity allocation are additional management issues for 54% of virtual infrastructures. Virtualisation is commonly projected to achieve an average server load of 80%. In reality, only one out of two companies surveyed had attained that rate.

It should be noted that virtualisation consumes between 2% and 8% of performance power. Without adequate controls, storage latency periods or input/output bandwidth can quickly result in bottlenecks due to developments in dynamic demand.

A lack of connectivity between business needs, IT services and the capacity allocation of physical and virtual resources prevents companies from achieving the maximum return on investment (ROI) with IT and virtualisation. According to IDG Research Services, nearly 25% of companies have capabilities for ROI measurement. From the perspective of business administration, most businesses are simply not in a position to determine additional resource requirements."

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