Virtual horizons

If virtualisation was a hot topic before the financial crisis, discussion has now reached fever pitch, thanks to the potential cost savings it offers end-users

Tags: Cisco Systems IncorporatedDubai Aluminium CompanyEconomic crisisHP Middle EastLeo BurnettMicrosoft GulfUnited Arab Emirates
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Virtual horizons At this point I keep feeling it is a bit expensive for us to jump on the wagon and I am waiting for the technology to mature. Bassem Aboukhater, regional IT. - director, Leo Burnett. (Khaled Termanini/ITP Images)
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By  Julian Pletts Published  August 15, 2009 Network Middle East Logo

The potential upside of data centre virtualisation is clear and evident. In its simplest form you take one server, create a golden image and have a virtualised server ready to use, essentially letting you bank the cost of a second server. We are in the middle of a recession and not having to shell out for infrastructure might well spark some inertia for your organisation to go down the virtual route.

Merely cutting out, or at the very least reducing, future expenditure is not where the cost savings peak though. Money can be saved in a variety of ways. Obviously, virtual servers take up less space. Power and cooling costs may go up in the server hosting the virtual environment, but that is not comparable to the extra costs that would bite if the equivalent infrastructure investment had to be made. Plus, maintenance costs should fall as the level of infrastructure does.

Of course not all of the potential gains resulting from data centre virtualisation are financial. One of the ultimate aims is to ingrain an inherent flexibility to the IT system that will maximise productivity of the workforce. If conducted properly a full server virtualisation will allow the IT administrator to apportion the exact amount of services, applications and power as and where needed and with ease. For instance, a golden image of a virtualised server can easily be moved from one server to another - a malleability that aptly suits the modern business environment of the Middle East, which commonly features distributed enterprises.

There is also the benefit that carrying out data centre virtualisation is a step towards future proofing as solutions are increasingly designed to work around the VR layer. By isolating applications within a virtual server the IT manager can also actively prevent one application from impacting another during upgrades or as changes are made. And finally by creating a virtual server, you can deploy more than one operating system on a single hardware device.

The positives to taking to VR in your data centre do not end there and they are limited only by the creativity, skills, know-how and resources of the IT department deploying it. But despite all the benefits, the picture painted by IT professionals on the ground is not one of unequivocal commitment to a virtualised present and future, but of cautious forward motion towards it. This is a scepticism punctuated by a wariness towards the velocity and fervour of the VR marketing drive.

"In the Middle East I would say that it is in the infancy," remarked Ahmad Al Mulla, vice president of Information Technology at Dubai Aluminum, on data centre virtualisation in the Middle East region. "Very few companies have done it, and those that have are usually the multinationals and have certain branches in the Middle East."

Al Mulla is among those end-users in the industry that feels hype surrounding virtualisation has overtaken the actual level of adoption in the market. This is however, not to say Middle East companies are not looking to virtualisation in the future, it is more that the pace is not as fast as vendors would hope or indeed uphold.

"I think over the next three to five years we will have a lot of projects on consolidation and virtualisation," asserted Al Mulla.

Bassem Aboukhater, who presides over the computer network of creative advertising agency Leo Burnett as regional IT director for the Middle East, is rather sceptical towards virtualisation in the data centre. He does say though, that were Leo Burnett to need more servers than the 25 it currently has in place at its Dubai location, it would certainly be looking to virtualisation as a way to make that upgrade.

"At this point I keep feeling it is a bit expensive for us to jump on the wagon and I am waiting for the technology to mature. It has definitely been a few years and it is definitely not where it used to be a few years ago," he added.

Interestingly, it must be noted that Aboukhater also believes that certain elements of virtualisation have taken on needless complication: "Why can't the OS be smart enough to handle two, three or five applications at the same time and handle them in a way that you can easily migrate them from one virtual system to another and keep the up-time? I feel it is all marketing and they are just introducing an additional layer of complexity to the whole mix."

It is very unlikely that Al Mulla and Aboukhater are alone in their assessments that virtualisation has not gained complete acceptance in the Middle East market. It must be said that at no point has any commentator said that virtualisation will not happen here, but the clear message is there is still a great deal of work to be done by vendors, integrators and end-users alike before most, if not all, of the data centres here are fully virtualised.

Dubai International Financial Centre (DIFC) which from an IT perspective offers infrastructure and location services to its body of largely multinational financial clients sees that virtualisation in the data centre is a reality among its end-user base, but concedes this is likely to be the case because of decisions made outside of the locale.

"There is definitely a wide range of opinions and schools of thought here [on virtualisation]. Vendors are actually pushing for it, and they should do that because there is a value," proclaimed Mohammed Sabunchi, IT infrastructure director at DIFC.

"Sometimes in the Middle East the decision is not made locally, because we have a lot of international firms that we work with that have centralised their decision on virtualisation. So the decision, when it comes to virtualisation, varies from one company to another, not because of how they feel the region is impacting it, but because they have to centralise their worldwide server policy," he explained.

Manufacturers are of course outwardly confident about the state of the data centre virtualisation market here but some will admit that is not because of current numbers, but the potential to come. Microsoft, which it could be said has only recently started to maneuver its aim towards capturing the virtualisation business, are candid about the lengths there are still to go in Middle East data centre virtualisation.

"Within the Middle East we consider the market, in particular the GCC, as a developing market when it comes to virtualisation of the data centre," admitted Ahmer Hasan, server and tools business group lead at Microsoft Gulf.

He goes on to say that only up to four percent of the existing servers in the Middle East market have been virtualised, leaving a huge swathe still to be virtualised. "The adoption is coming, it is happening, but it is slow. Some [enterprises] have already deployed and are looking to increase the footprint of their solution and others are evaluating it," he emphasised.

It is worth noting that Microsoft is among the vendors keen to point out that VMware - known as a pioneer in the virtualisation field and a market leader elsewhere - does not necessarily top the market billing in this region, which is certainly food for thought when considering solutions.

"I won't go into that," said Hasan when asked about VMware's market share in the region. "I suggest that is something that you can get from IDC, [who say] VMware's share of the Gulf market is far lower than it is elsewhere and our share is 34% of the market and it is growing significantly fast. We have been into very few scenarios where we have actually lost against VMware."

So why has the Middle East which, prior to the global slowdown, was basking in a sustained period of growth, been tempered in its adoption of data centre virtualisation. One way to look at it is the growth itself has negated investment in virtualisation. A view also held by Al Mulla at Dubal.

"When you are in a growth cycle you do not have time to consolidate, you just need everything up and running and the easiest way to do that is to blend a server and put things up," said Al Mulla.

Perhaps then, the financial crisis might allow organisations in this region to take greater stock of their physical infrastructure and begin investment in virtualisation time for when growth returns to the territory. And the best first investment for most might not be in virtualisation tools, but in a period of server consolidation.

Rich Link, head of data centre business development for Cisco Emerging Markets, is confident though that the Middle East is a region that can largely circumvent the consolidation stage: "The interesting thing about the Middle East is that it doesn't necessarily have the challenge of physical data centre consolidation. Frankly it is the opposite. They need more data centres today and they want to make sure that they get it right the first time with the ones they are building. They are looking at this very closely and in some respects we see the enterprises being able to leapfrog western counterparts because they don't have this legacy of monstrous data centres which they have to first think ‘what do I want to keep and get rid of?"

Dubal's Al Mulla anticipates however, that it will be at least five years before most of the medium sized enterprises and even large organisations here have gone through a complete stage of server consolidation and are ready to capitalise on a virtualisation investment. He is also among those CIOs that point out specific challenges that responsible CIOs absolutely must be aware of when they move into the virtual realm.

"There is the issue of change management," suggests Al Mulla. "When you go to virtualisation you have to think differently about how you manage your data centre and that will be a challenge. The longer you have been with data centres and you have people that have been there for a long time, the more difficult it is."

Of course if you talk to manufacturers, change management in data centre virtualisation is a blow that they are able to soften for customers through strong implementations and local support to back up anything that might go wrong. The Middle East however, is an emerging market, and as such, most vendors have satellite offices with a lot of support and work done through the channel, meaning some CIOs fear localised support might be limited.

In addition to this, server virtualisation spending will undoubtedly have to be accompanied by an investment in skilled virtualisation resources. "If you want to do it yourself you have to bring the skills upgrade and when it comes to virtualisation, the market for talent is quite big so the moment your guys know this, they will get better offers and leave you," explained Dubal's Al Mulla.

When it comes to the reasons for creating a virtual layer to their infrastructure, heading the list is likely to be financial motivations. Whilst it is certainly true that virtualisation will save money in the long-run, it is important though to be fully aware of costs it will incur in the short-term. These include investment in training, the cost of the virtualisation tools, solutions and services and indeed of a consultant, if one is hired, and it will also include the ongoing cost of licences.

But challenges and issues aside the promise of virtualisation and the benefits users will reap are plentiful. So perhaps the best approach is a tailored and highly selective one - a sentiment upheld by vendors.

"We are not advising our customers to go virtualisation in all directions. They have to look at their environment, study it well and then we will give them a different flavour of virtualisation," said Rasheed Al-Omari, adaptive infrastructure lead Middle East at HP Technology Solutions Group. "It is a process, and for customers where they don't have the skills, and they need to build the skills and to put the people aspect into it. It needs to be a gradual step-by-step thing."

The tempered arrival at a solution is a wise move as there is by no means a one size fits all DC virtualisation solution. Virtualisation can be used to answer very specific business desires, and at the same time is not perfect for every IT requirement.

Citrix System's Middle East manager for systems engineering, Nick Black offers up an example of how virtualisation has to be carefully tailored to each end-user's needs: "How do you address the area where one person wants to log on and get two applications, and another wants three apps? The obvious way to do that is to have two images. But what about telcos that have potentially 5,000 users? Do you have the same amount of images? In which case you have got something like five hundred terabytes of storage requirements and that is something customers are going to shy away from."

From HP's perspective in addition to crafting a solution to meet the demands of an organisation, it has to be carefully managed as well, with the full ability to monitor security parameters as a given requirement.

"They have to have the management tools that are able to monitor the entire lifecycle from one end to another; all of the physical, as well as the virtualised infrastructure," explained HP's Al-Omari.  "Also the security needs to be enabled into that kind of virtualised environment, monitored and taken into consideration."

Vendor data centre virtualisation solutions are immense and perplexing in size and breadth. This is before you even start thinking about further stages of virtualisation such as application virtualisation. It is no wonder that one of the major concerns of CIOs here is whether the resulting system they get after an investment is made will be unmanageable and impossible to secure.

There are however, as we have seen, plenty of reasons to move albeit cautiously towards server virtualisation. But prior to this, painstaking planning must be done and every angle considered. These include considerations of easing your staff through a period of upheaval, the level of skills you currently have onboard, the depth and breadth of services and solutions in the market, the need to secure the new abstract layer whilst maintaining its flexibility and the outlay which will be significant at first.

There is also a plethora of further elements to tie-down such as disaster recovery, as virtualising servers and infrastructure can potentially lead to a single point of failure. It is important to be able to measure the ROI - a consideration that will call for elements of the implementation to be tangible and measurable. A clear view or impression of how virtualisation in the data centre will work in conjunction with future IT evolutions such as application virtualisation, compliance, further optimisation and even cloud computing is also of great importance in the planning stages.

The future of data centre virtualisation in the Middle East is assured. Regional CIOs and IT managers stand to benefit greatly if they make careful and considered decisions towards consolidation and virtualisation. Furthermore, without a mass of legacy systems they are free to choose the best up-to date solutions from international vendors and perhaps even avoid serious mistakes that have been made in other markets.

As Cisco's Link concludes: "I think [the future] is extremely bright at this point - virtualisation has already been proven in having an impact to help IT managers manage complexity reduce OPEX, make the most of energy resources and optimise infrastructure utilisation. I see it as being very positive and we see a huge amount of growth in this area, Middle East enterprises understand this and understand the benefits. I see them taking a very pragmatic approach about how they are delving into virtualisation, which is smart."

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