Virtual power

With markets still reeling from the credit crisis, IT managers will look at virtualisation with renewed interest as a means of maximising the cost-effectiveness of their infrastructure.

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By  Imthishan Giado Published  December 28, 2008

With markets still reeling from the credit crisis, IT managers will look at virtualisation with renewed interest as a means of maximising the cost-effectiveness of their infrastructure.

It's been 12 months since we last looked into the world of virtualisation - and it's fair to say that a tsunami of change has swept through the region.

Last year, CIOs were full of boundless enthusiasm for the possibilities of virtualisation to transform every aspect of their infrastructure, providing increased flexibility alongside better utilisation of existing resources.

In order to implement server virtualisation for certain datacentre, it used to take us 30 to 60 days if everything went fine and the customer met all prerequisites. Today we can do the solution in a less than a week, end to end.

Huge rooms full of servers requiring noisy and expensive cooling would transition into efficient blades that packed more computing power into the same space.

In the office, IT managers would bid goodbye to clunky, space-inefficient and downtime-prone desktops, replacing them with sleek thin clients that allowed users to access their desktop from any point in the office.

In the event of a failure, thin clients could be replaced by any member of staff in a procedure that is as simple as changing a lightbulb.

So the situation looked generally positive - but darkness was on the horizon. For all its touted benefits, there were almost no publicly announced completed projects in the Middle East last year - despite the technology having been in existence in one form or the other for more than 20 years.

CIOs were clearly apprehensive about how they would implement such an ambitious upgrade and the skills they would need to do so, while concerned about how they could explain the ROI proposition at the boardroom level.

It seemed very likely that vendors were excitedly betting the CIO's farm on something that might very well not deliver in the final analysis.

Perhaps this is one reason why a financial institution as large as the National Bank of Abu Dhabi (NBAD) has yet to deploy virtualisation within its infrastructure. ACN's CIO of the Year, Srood Sherif says that other implementations took precedence.

"Unfortunately, we're not advanced as far as we recognised two years ago. We had put money into the budget to go down that route and spend some money investigating that process. But we have done very little with it, because the department was extremely busy with this new core deployment," he explains.

But with NBAD's server sprawl starting to get out of hand, Sherif admits that he can no longer put virtualisation on the backburner: "We have more than 280 servers and each one of those needs to be managed, monitored  patched, logged and so on. It's a mammoth task for someone to do. Or, you have 25 systems administrators dedicated to that role - and of course, no one can afford to do that."

He explains his solution: "We're working with several vendors on virtualisation. There are huge systems composed of different blade servers called bladeframes which can take different windows servers, Linux, Solaris - these are the kind of things we are looking at the moment. This year, we'll take virtualisation more actively because we cannot keep growing horizontally and adding boxes."

Indeed, it's becoming apparent that while firms may have been slow to virtualise their infrastructure in great numbers this year, next year might be a completely different story.

John Coulston, head of marketing for Dell Middle East, explains: "We've just come back from doing six virtualisation events around the region, in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and the UAE, speaking to hundreds of customers about virtualisation. If you ask the people who turn up to a room how many have virtualisation projects in place today, you get maybe 10%-15%. You ask them how have virtualisation projects planned in the next six months - it's the rest of the audience."

But while interest levels run high, Coulston cautions enterprises not to virtualise for the sake of doing so: "Take a step-by-step approach to virtualising your environment. You don't necessarily want to virtualise everywhere. You may have one server machine that is running a workload at 70% efficiency; you don't want to change that. Why virtualise that environment? It's not necessarily going to bring you any benefits."

NBAD's Sherif echoes that sentiment: "The point is what actually fits your requirement and what type of environments you have. It's not as simple as bunching 25 servers and putting it into one box. There's a lot of application dependencies, internal skills required and so on. You need to look at the best solution, what skills you have. You also have to keep in mind that you have to work with a variety of vendors."

Burning down the legacy house

Legacy systems

NBAD's CIO, Srood Sherif, explains why old infrastructure is often not the expected stumbling block to implementing virtualisation systems.

"We don't have actually have a lot of legacy systems at the moment. Most are usually within the cycle of five to six years. We do have the odd application running on something like Windows NT. They are very small applications developed by a small company and we are now in the process of testing the new release. We don't have mission critical applications that are considered legacy and that cannot be considered for virtualisation.

"When you say virtualisation, it's not a case of throwing away 250 boxes and putting one in its place. What we're saying is, if you have 60-70 windows servers, you can have one box with blades and managed by one or two people rather than having four or five instead. That doesn't mean you fire the other people - what you do is optimise your services."

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