A virtually unlimited opportunity

With servers and other IT equipment proliferating like coat hangers in a dark closet and electricity bills ballooning, it’s no wonder that companies are turning to technologies that can help them save space and power.

Chief among these is virtualization, defined in broad terms as “a factorization or abstraction of computing resources into a useful subset of its elements.” In English, that means you can make one big server look like several smaller ones, each with its own separate “hardware” (NIC, memory, disk, and so forth), saving a ton of floor space and power. Or, you can make one disk look like many, or many disks look like one, or even isolate applications.

However you look at it though, virtualization isn’t new says Chris Pratt, strategic initiative executive at IBM Canada. “We’ve known about it in the mainframe environment for years.” But he adds “the reasons for virtualization have not gone away – they’re as old as IT itself: to improve service and drive down costs.”

Companies that may never have even heard of mainframes have flocked to the technology in droves. According to IDC Canada, in January 2008 63 per cent of organizations with over 500 employees and 40 per cent of medium-sized organizations (100 – 499 employees) were using server virtualization. That’s up from 48 and 22 per cent, respectively, in early 2007.

“Server virtualization is definitely where the investment is made today, and will continue to be made both in new systems and virtualization of older servers,” says Jason Bremner, director, infrastructure hardware, at IDC Canada. “There has been a very quick, very widespread of adoption of server virtualization in the Canadian marketplace.”

In a survey by Boston-based Chadwick Martin Bailey’s Sage Research, conducted among companies with over 1,000 employees that have implemented server virtualization, 39 per cent of respondents cited their primary driver as the need to consolidate servers or improve server utilization, 80 per cent said it was one of several reasons they decided to deploy the technology, and almost a quarter said their key reason was lowering data centre and IT administration costs, with 70 per cent listing cost savings as one of their considerations.

“There’s a tremendous benefit to virtualization,” agrees Patty Then, senior marketing manager, storage management, at CA. “Consolidating the physical infrastructure means a reduced footprint, and there are costs associated with a large footprint. Companies are looking for a way to change the environment without disrupting the physical infrastructure.”

Vendors are responding to these needs with offerings that provide opportunities for both product sales and services revenue for resellers.

Market leader VMware, the top choice among customers according to the Sage survey with 71 per cent of respondents using, has been in the virtualization business for almost a decade and, according to Julie Eades, director of worldwide channel marketing, currently gets over 75 per cent of its revenue through the channel. But the company’s portfolio doesn’t only consist of server virtualization software any more. It also offers desktop virtualization and management tools.

“It’s a nice value proposition for partners to talk to their customers around,” she says. “They have the ability to talk about server containment, management, virtual desktops … they have a lot to talk about that can solve a lot of pain points. It’s a nice portfolio to go in with.”

A competitive landscape

But VMware can’t rest on its laurels. A technology this hot has new competitors coming out of the woodwork. For example, at its OpenWorld conference last November Oracle announced a server virtualization product called Oracle VM that supports both Oracle and non-Oracle applications.

“It’s free to download, free to distribute and free to use,” says Monica Kumar, senior director of open source product marketing at Oracle. “VARs can sell support on top of it. Any reseller can pick it up and add value for its customers.”

The Oracle Technology Network even provides specific resources in its Technology Center for Virtualization, including images and templates to assist in creating preconfigured, preinstalled images.

“Resellers can benefit from this if they’re configuring systems for customers,” says Kumar. “It means faster deployment, and cuts their time for building solutions. And ISVs can leverage Oracle’s market reach, building templates and images for their products that Oracle will make available to its customers.”

Even Microsoft has jumped into the virtualization space, first with its Virtual PC and Virtual Server products, and more recently with its soon-to-be released hypervisor-based Windows Server 2008 Hyper-V virtualization, which is now shipping in beta form with some SKUs of Windows Server 2008. In conjunction with the Hyper-V release, Microsoft’s System Center management suite will gain a virtual machine manager.

“There are lots of opportunities for partners,” notes Bruce Cowper, security lead at Microsoft Canada. “The biggest challenge is managing and maintaining a virtual environment. Because it’s so easy to provision virtual machines, we’re trying to avoid virtual server sprawl. Customers need to closely manage the virtual machine environment.”

Management of virtual environments is the primary focus of Symantec’s offerings, according to Symantec Corp. distinguished engineer Bruce McCorkendale. “It strikes me, with virtualization you reduce everything to data,” he muses. “There’s a real server management cost to virtual machines. You have to be able to identify anything that hits the network, measure it, check it against policy and remediate – things you want to do whether it’s a physical or a virtual server.” And, he points out, now people can spin up a new virtual server in a matter of minutes, whereas physical servers take many hours to provision.

You can’t forget security

Security is a constant consideration says Kellman Meghu, Canadian SE manager at Check Point Software Technologies. Customers have concerns about the security of virtual environments, especially in a managed service situation. “It’s an attractive area. The number of virtual devices can expand quickly,” he says. “As the number of virtual devices increases, there’s an opportunity for consulting and services. It’s faster than sourcing hardware.”

Check Point offers several products, such as Provider 1, that let resellers become managed security providers to multiple customers on one system, while keeping virtual walls between those customers.

“Virtual machines are not treated any differently from real servers,” says Meghu.

Security also has another face that most organizations hope they will never see: disaster recovery. And, says Kevin Smith, server brand manager at Dell Canada, more and more customers are deploying the disaster recovery features of virtualization.

“It’s an opportunity from the deployment perspective,” he says. “Many customers are interested, but don’t have the expertise in-house.” To assist its partners in providing that expertise, the company offers an online virtual advisor tool to help partners do quick sizing assessments, and another to assist in planning rack environments.

“It’s hard to justify disaster recovery plans,” notes CA’s Then. “With virtualization you can do more with less people because you’re managing logical machines, not physical ones. Every customer in the mid-market is looking for affordable ways to protect their environment. They can be running their businesses from one physical location, and may not be prepared for disaster. It’s a huge opportunity for virtualization for disaster recovery and business continuity.”

Branch offices are another challenge. “Being able to have a predictable infrastructure in remote offices is key to providing service,” says Marty Grosh, director of enterprise services at IT service provider Compugen Inc., which has built a practice around virtualization in its various forms. “With the introduction of Hyper-V from Microsoft, it presents opportunities for the masses, and in areas it previously wasn’t finding a way into, like virtualization in branch offices. The previous lot of virtualization products was very data centre-focused – in many cases consolidation and centralization technology.”

Going virtually green

Despite all of these benefits, IBM’s Pratt thinks we’re missing one critical reason to embrace virtualization. “The most recent and obvious benefit of virtualization that can no longer be ignored is the ‘green’ aspect,” he said. “As we move forward, many technological boundaries have fallen, but political boundaries remain. We need to be environmentally responsible and cut through that.”

“IT executives put up LED holiday lights and save a few watts, and good for them,” he went on, “But one rack of x86 servers can consume as much power as 15 average homes in Ontario. If we could halve the number of servers, we could cut the energy consumption as though we’d taken seven to 10 homes off the grid.”

He thinks that resellers could play a large role in helping companies think green. “When someone comes along and says ‘we need two more servers,’ a smart reseller could say, ‘let’s look at what you have in place today – maybe you should virtualize the last two we sold you.’ But that’s hard if the reseller only provides hardware,” he says. “An astute reseller looks at what an organization wants to achieve. It’s no different than any other consultative role.”

The touted benefits of introducing virtualization into an environment aren’t necessarily just marketing hype, either. Over 80 per cent of customers in the Sage survey said that it exceeded their expectations overall, with 84 per cent citing improved data security, 82 per cent reduced server downtime, 81 per cent service level management and 74 per cent saying it exceeded their expectations in lowering data centre costs.

And, says Pratt, “If the business benefits don’t speak for themselves, then the environmental impact should shame (customers) into doing it!”

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Lynn Greiner
Lynn Greiner
Lynn Greiner has been interpreting tech for businesses for over 20 years and has worked in the industry as well as writing about it, giving her a unique perspective into the issues companies face. She has both IT credentials and a business degree

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