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Optimize IT with a smart virtualization strategy

To succeed on a smarter planet, you need smarter, greener systems. As midsized businesses become increasingly interconnected and workspace boundaries continue to blur—through well-instrumented mobile devices, PCs, servers, data centers, software and the processes that make it all work—the world's IT infrastructure must keep pace with the work ahead. Dealing with the massive amounts of information that result from improved customer service and effective business processes also requires a dynamic and flexible IT infrastructure. Simply adding servers and storage often increases management complexity and energy costs.

Best-practices virtualization deployments help companies optimize IT efficiency and simplify management, supporting fast, flexible response to the changing business landscape. By enabling better utilization of computing resources, virtualization technology can substantially reduce the footprint of your server hardware, along with power and cooling costs. As virtualization becomes an affordable option, midsized companies are discovering that the environment-friendly aspect inherent in a virtualized environment helps lower costs as well—through efficient server consolidation, reduced energy consumption, improved resource usage and a smaller carbon footprint.

Still, in the rush for cost savings, it can be easy to over-deploy virtual machines (VMs). Known as virtualization sprawl, the rapid growth of VMs can make the overall IT environment a challenge to manage, particularly when a mix of virtualization software requires heightened attention for monitoring, configuration management and automated performance processes. Some organizations are caught off guard when virtualization sprawl leads to a level of IT complexity that offsets potential efficiency benefits and energy savings. But it doesn't have to be this way. By following a few basic guidelines, even organizations with small technical departments can add more green to their bottom line by taking advantage of virtualization deployments.

Keep enough computing capacity in reserve

While virtualization can radically streamline IT and reduce the number of physical servers a business needs—sometimes dramatically—excitement about increasing server utilization rates can lead to situations where too much hardware gets virtualized. There is a limit to carving up physical hardware into VMs, says Nigel Fortlage, vice president of information technologies at GHY, an import/export brokerage firm in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

When GHY began an aggressive virtualization program in 2003, Fortlage says his department tested the limits of VMs on existing hardware. "We pushed it [virtualization] to find out how much could we really carve out of the system," he recalls. However, after their initial capacity tests, Fortlage and his colleagues adopted a sensible approach to server virtualization.

For optimum efficiency, physical hardware that hosts VMs should not be completely utilized. By overpopulating servers with VMs, organizations can create administrative problems when enough computing power has not been set aside to handle sudden spikes in workload, not to mention having a failover system at the ready in a case a VM or physical server stops working. Experts in the field typically suggest using no more than 60 percent of physical server resources; this is still many times more efficient than relying on nonvirtualized physical servers, which rarely use more than 10 percent of their total capacity.

In addition, prioritizing the creation of new VMs can help avoid virtualization sprawl. For example, first virtualizing those servers responsible for core business activities can help an organization become more efficient, and allow small IT departments to concentrate on serving the most important business activities.

"The budget has to line up, and I have to deliver value back to the organization."

Play it by the book to cut complexity

Beyond taking a considered and logical approach to what gets virtualized, close attention to vendor guidelines is critical in combating virtualization sprawl. Virtualization isn't entirely a plug-and-play world, since the creation of a VM essentially deploys a server that must be able to host operating systems and applications, as well as run on its own host machine. In a mixed environment with different kinds of physical servers and operating systems, a misstep in deploying a VM can tempt some organizations to simply create a new VM as a workaround. This, of course, reduces server utilization and increases management complexity.

Deploying more than one virtualization technology can also increase complexity. Moving a business application from one server to another should be a fairly straightforward task. But if an application is moved from a VM created by one vendor's virtualization software to a VM created by another vendor's virtualization software, the administrator will need to strictly follow all appropriate guidelines—or risk damaging the application.

While mixed IT environments are usual in many midsized companies, organizations may want to think about standardizing on one virtualization technology. This can cut complexity, improve operational efficiency and reduce the possibility of creating extra VMs. Hosting VMs on uniform physical servers also curtails virtualization sprawl. For example, if you have a mixed environment, different kinds of physical servers will have different amounts of capacity and their own unique management requirements. Creating virtualized servers in these dissimilar hosted environments will lead to a situation where the VMs differ somewhat. But with the same kind of physical infrastructure, small IT staffs can more quickly understand and manage multiple VMs without having to make exceptions based on the type of host machine.

Take the uniform view to curb sprawl

Uniformity shouldn't be limited to hardware and virtualization software, either. In addition to standardizing on similar physical equipment, a centralized management interface is essential to keeping virtualization sprawl at bay and ensuring optimum performance. This way, a small IT organization can efficiently keep tabs on all the components of a virtualized system—and make sure nothing slips between the cracks. Even for organizations running a mix of virtualization environments, these systems can work so administrators have a single view of VMs and physical servers throughout an IT environment.

This single view, says Fortlage, is one of the reasons GHY hasn't experienced server sprawl—or needed to increase its IT headcount to manage a virtualized IT environment. "We have a singular interface. I don't need a lot of skills to know how to manage the virtual environment," Fortlage says. "In fact, everybody on my team is at a relative equal parity, as far as their knowledge of how to work with the virtual management space. It's all about simplifying management."

Move forward with new opportunities

With these few straightforward measures, midsized businesses can prevent virtualization sprawl and look forward to reaping the very significant benefits of virtualization. At GHY, for example, virtualization has cut 14 percent from the company's operational budget. But as Fortlage notes, keeping virtualization sprawl at bay over the long term ultimately requires a commitment to the business functions IT is supposed to support. "The numbers have to make sense. The budget has to line up, and I have to deliver value back to the organization."

Because the numbers do make sense, Fortlage and his colleagues are preparing to virtualize other IT components, such as storage and desktops, so GHY can keep pace with the work ahead. And the work ahead appears to be substantial. According to IDC, data volumes and network bandwidth are expected to grow ten-fold in the next three years. Much of this information will come from hundreds of billions of intelligent and interconnected devices—including sensors in everything from cameras to shipping containers.

By adopting a best-practices approach to virtualization, midsize organizations can optimize IT efficiency, simplify management and advance green computing benefits. Midsized businesses that approach virtualization prudently will be in a better situation to increase IT capacity within the same energy footprint while supporting business growth in an environmentally and fiscally responsible manner.

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