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Posted: January 23, 2009

Q1 tech report: Going virtual

The next great data solution can increase efficiency and save energy, but it’s still evolving

Eric Peterson

TechReport_Servers_lg.jpg

IBM came up with the concept of virtualization in the 1960s, but it’s only truly sprouted wings in real-world data centers of the 21st century.

Today, these virtual machines — essentially hardware simulated by software running on another piece of hardware — have evolved since their incubation at Big Blue, blurring once-clear technological lines.

The big player in today’s virtualization software market, VMware (NYSE: VMW), offers hardware-agnostic enterprise software that runs directly on a server without requiring an underlying operating system. Storage can be virtualized, as can networks and video adapters, and you can run a number of different virtual machines on just one server — in the end significantly boosting the efficiency of the most expensive hardware in your data center.

Virtualization fit the bill for many clients of Golden-based INITECH, a technology consulting and integration company named for the company in the movie “Office Space.”

“We try to present solutions that are budget-neutral or budget negative at the end of the day,” says Jonathan Senger, founder and chief executive officer.

The most obvious benefits of virtualization are business continuity and disaster recovery, Senger says. Other benefits include more access to economies of scale and less physical space required for servers in the data center. In many cases, five dedicated servers can be consolidated onto one machine, making for lower power consumption. “If you’re removing a lot of processing power, you’re going to see a reduction in electricity usage,” Senger says.

But there are many other factors to consider before embracing virtualization. “You really need to punch the numbers on whether virtualization makes sense or not,” Senger says. “You really need to do your due diligence. It’s a good fit if you’re doing a technology refresh. If you go into it blindly, you can end up spending more money.”

Considerations range from heating, ventilation and air conditioning to human resources, but Senger’s key question is “What kind of apps are you running?”

“We’re very wary about pushing virtualization 100 percent,” he says. “We like to start with one thing, but you can dive in headfirst if you have the resources. We’re a little bit sensitive to the paradigm shift that it represents to our clients. Get the user base accustomed to it; let them know it works.”

Because virtualized IT can be managed remotely, there is less human activity in the data center. “It’s the difference between the perception of support and actual support,” Senger says. Two employees might be able to be replaced by one, he adds, but that one will likely commend a higher salary. “Inevitably, you’re going to need an added skill set.”

Other potential snags include lagging bi-directional communication, interoperability concerns, and bandwidth limitations. “The industry is getting there, but it’s not there yet,” Senger says.

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But many companies are already reaping advantages. For example, Return Path Inc., an e-mail services provider with offices in Louisville and three other cities, is making heavy use of virtualization for both cost savings and power conservation. By consolidating its development and quality assurance environments, Return Path has whittled from 40 servers to 12, with a dramatic impact on its data-center footprint as well as power consumption.

Englewood-based Statera, an IT consulting firm, also has seen the benefits of virtualization in its shop, CEO Carl Fitch says. “We’ve been able to consolidate the number of servers we have by half by using virtualization techniques, by putting our applications on the cloud and empowering our work force to use those tools far better than we were just a few years ago,” he says.

Virtualization has become a lot more commonplace, but plenty of concerns remain, says Dave Shackleford, director of Colorado Springs-based Configuresoft’s Center for Policy and Compliance. The company’s Enterprise Configuration Manager manages and secures virtualized systems.

“It’s a new technology — it’s not well understood yet,” he says. Virtualization, he notes, “allows organizations to immediately start saving money because it allows companies to decommission existing systems. They often do that without concern for configuration and security. You can push one button and have a system up and running in about one minute.”

It’s almost too easy. Because of this, IT guys often “get sloppy or do it too fast,” Shackleford adds. “Virtualization can circumvent change-control systems. You’ve got systems on top of systems on top of hardware. With a Fortune 1,000 company, pretty soon you’ve got a nightmare on your hands.”

The transition is a money-saving jump off a cliff, Shackleford says. “That’s where Configuresoft comes in.”

Among the pitfalls of virtualization is a blurring of employee roles. “In mid-sized companies and up, you’ve kind of broken it up,” Shackleford says. “You have a networking team, a security team, a disaster recovery team. With virtualization, that goes out the window. There are all sorts of strange overlaps in terms of operational duties. Most organizations are creating separate virtualization teams that never existed before.”

The million-dollar security question: Can virtual systems be hacked in tandem? “They’re all talking through VMware,” Shackleford says. “It hasn’t been done, but there have been some real close calls. Most security guys agree it’s just a matter of time.”

It’s hard to deny that virtualization revolutionizes system maintenance. “I can click one button and migrate a virtual machine to another piece of hardware without ever having to come offline,” says Shackleford, noting that at the same time the practice can lead to compliance issues. “If the new server isn’t compliant and an auditor walks through, you’re toast. But the technology is amazing. It’s just a matter of putting some framework around it.” Shackleford says some data centers report cutting their electricity bills upward of 50 percent after a virtualization initiative.

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Configuring storage and security also can be difficult in the new virtual world. “It’s easy to misconfigure one of the internal virtual switches,” Shackleford says. “There’s a lot of pieces and parts stepping all over each other.”

The remedy? “Planning,” he advises. Putting detailed policies in place before implementation goes a long way.
It’s not so bad to be behind the curve when it comes to virtualization, he says. “Most people are taking a step back and planning more completely. It’s the early adopters that are having to go back and redo some things.

“The technology’s improved by leaps and bounds, too, and of course that helps (avoid some of these issues),” Shackleford adds. “It’s one of the biggest shifts we’ve seen in the last decade, and it’s going to blow up even bigger in the next decade. It’s what everybody is focused on.”

INITECH’s Senger says hackers typically have a harder time cracking virtualized servers. “It can actually be more secure, but there are upsides and downsides with that,” he says. “You’ve got another layer of complexity. Instead of one server to hack you’ve got a cluster of virtualized servers. And there isn’t anything living on the desktop. If a laptop gets stolen … none of that stuff lives locally anymore.”

Another factor is to consider what else is on the technological horizon, Senger advises. “There are so many options. Everybody is vying for this office technology space. ‘Cloud computing’ is coming up very fast.”

Microsoft will soon offer Web-based versions of Office and Exchange as fully featured counterpunches to Google Docs and Gmail. “Why would I virtualize Exchange if it can be hosted?” Senger says. “If it’s hosted for $15 a mailbox and you can literally migrate over tomorrow, it’s hard to argue for virtualization.

“Virtualization is not going to be an end-all, be-all,” he says. “There are just too many options out there. We’re going to see some big changes in the months ahead.” 

IBM came up with the concept of virtualization in the 1960s, but it’s only truly sprouted wings in real-world data centers of the 21st century.

Today, these virtual machines — essentially hardware simulated by software running on another piece of hardware — have evolved since their incubation at Big Blue, blurring once-clear technological lines.

The big player in today’s virtualization software market, VMware (NYSE: VMW), offers hardware-agnostic enterprise software that runs directly on a server without requiring an underlying operating system. Storage can be virtualized, as can networks and video adapters, and you can run a number of different virtual machines on just one server — in the end significantly boosting the efficiency of the most expensive hardware in your data center.

Virtualization fit the bill for many clients of Golden-based INITECH, a technology consulting and integration company named for the company in the movie “Office Space.”

“We try to present solutions that are budget-neutral or budget negative at the end of the day,” says Jonathan Senger, founder and chief executive officer.

The most obvious benefits of virtualization are business continuity and disaster recovery, Senger says. Other benefits include more access to economies of scale and less physical space required for servers in the data center. In many cases, five dedicated servers can be consolidated onto one machine, making for lower power consumption. “If you’re removing a lot of processing power, you’re going to see a reduction in electricity usage,” Senger says.

But there are many other factors to consider before embracing virtualization. “You really need to punch the numbers on whether virtualization makes sense or not,” Senger says. “You really need to do your due diligence. It’s a good fit if you’re doing a technology refresh. If you go into it blindly, you can end up spending more money.”

Considerations range from heating, ventilation and air conditioning to human resources, but Senger’s key question is “What kind of apps are you running?”

“We’re very wary about pushing virtualization 100 percent,” he says. “We like to start with one thing, but you can dive in headfirst if you have the resources. We’re a little bit sensitive to the paradigm shift that it represents to our clients. Get the user base accustomed to it; let them know it works.”

Because virtualized IT can be managed remotely, there is less human activity in the data center. “It’s the difference between the perception of support and actual support,” Senger says. Two employees might be able to be replaced by one, he adds, but that one will likely commend a higher salary. “Inevitably, you’re going to need an added skill set.”

Other potential snags include lagging bi-directional communication, interoperability concerns, and bandwidth limitations. “The industry is getting there, but it’s not there yet,” Senger says.

But many companies are already reaping advantages. For example, Return Path Inc., an e-mail services provider with offices in Louisville and three other cities, is making heavy use of virtualization for both cost savings and power conservation. By consolidating its development and quality assurance environments, Return Path has whittled from 40 servers to 12, with a dramatic impact on its data-center footprint as well as power consumption.

Englewood-based Statera, an IT consulting firm, also has seen the benefits of virtualization in its shop, CEO Carl Fitch says. “We’ve been able to consolidate the number of servers we have by half by using virtualization techniques, by putting our applications on the cloud and empowering our work force to use those tools far better than we were just a few years ago,” he says.

Virtualization has become a lot more commonplace, but plenty of concerns remain, says Dave Shackleford, director of Colorado Springs-based Configuresoft’s Center for Policy and Compliance. The company’s Enterprise Configuration Manager manages and secures virtualized systems.

“It’s a new technology — it’s not well understood yet,” he says. Virtualization, he notes, “allows organizations to immediately start saving money because it allows companies to decommission existing systems. They often do that without concern for configuration and security. You can push one button and have a system up and running in about one minute.”

It’s almost too easy. Because of this, IT guys often “get sloppy or do it too fast,” Shackleford adds. “Virtualization can circumvent change-control systems. You’ve got systems on top of systems on top of hardware. With a Fortune 1,000 company, pretty soon you’ve got a nightmare on your hands.”

The transition is a money-saving jump off a cliff, Shackleford says. “That’s where Configuresoft comes in.”

Among the pitfalls of virtualization is a blurring of employee roles. “In mid-sized companies and up, you’ve kind of broken it up,” Shackleford says. “You have a networking team, a security team, a disaster recovery team. With virtualization, that goes out the window. There are all sorts of strange overlaps in terms of operational duties. Most organizations are creating separate virtualization teams that never existed before.”

The million-dollar security question: Can virtual systems be hacked in tandem? “They’re all talking through VMware,” Shackleford says. “It hasn’t been done, but there have been some real close calls. Most security guys agree it’s just a matter of time.”

It’s hard to deny that virtualization revolutionizes system maintenance. “I can click one button and migrate a virtual machine to another piece of hardware without ever having to come offline,” says Shackleford, noting that at the same time the practice can lead to compliance issues. “If the new server isn’t compliant and an auditor walks through, you’re toast. But the technology is amazing. It’s just a matter of putting some framework around it.” Shackleford says some data centers report cutting their electricity bills upward of 50 percent after a virtualization initiative.

Configuring storage and security also can be difficult in the new virtual world. “It’s easy to misconfigure one of the internal virtual switches,” Shackleford says. “There’s a lot of pieces and parts stepping all over each other.”

The remedy? “Planning,” he advises. Putting detailed policies in place before implementation goes a long way.
It’s not so bad to be behind the curve when it comes to virtualization, he says. “Most people are taking a step back and planning more completely. It’s the early adopters that are having to go back and redo some things.

“The technology’s improved by leaps and bounds, too, and of course that helps (avoid some of these issues),” Shackleford adds. “It’s one of the biggest shifts we’ve seen in the last decade, and it’s going to blow up even bigger in the next decade. It’s what everybody is focused on.”

INITECH’s Senger says hackers typically have a harder time cracking virtualized servers. “It can actually be more secure, but there are upsides and downsides with that,” he says. “You’ve got another layer of complexity. Instead of one server to hack you’ve got a cluster of virtualized servers. And there isn’t anything living on the desktop. If a laptop gets stolen … none of that stuff lives locally anymore.”

Another factor is to consider what else is on the technological horizon, Senger advises. “There are so many options. Everybody is vying for this office technology space. ‘Cloud computing’ is coming up very fast.”

Microsoft will soon offer Web-based versions of Office and Exchange as fully featured counterpunches to Google Docs and Gmail. “Why would I virtualize Exchange if it can be hosted?” Senger says. “If it’s hosted for $15 a mailbox and you can literally migrate over tomorrow, it’s hard to argue for virtualization.

“Virtualization is not going to be an end-all, be-all,” he says. “There are just too many options out there. We’re going to see some big changes in the months ahead.” 

On the Web
Configuresoft
www.configuresoft.com

INITECH
www.initech3.com

VMware
www.vmware.com

Return Path
www.returnpath.com

Statera
www.statera.com

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Denver-based writer Eric Peterson is the author of Frommer's Colorado, Frommer's Montana & Wyoming, Frommer's Yellowstone & Grand Teton National Parks and the Ramble series of guidebooks, featuring first-person travelogues covering everything from atomic landmarks in New Mexico to celebrity gone wrong in Hollywood. Peterson has also recently written about backpacking in Yosemite, cross-country skiing in Yellowstone and downhill skiing in Colorado for such publications as Denver's Westword and The New York Daily News. He can be reached at Eptcb126@msn.com

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