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The Dollars And Sense Of Virtual Data Centers

To manage server sprawl, exponential data growth, power consumption, and nearly unmanageable infrastructures, many IT organizations are turning to data-center virtualization and blade-server technologies. But careful consideration is needed.

It's a classic dilemma: The more automation a business requires, the more complex and unwieldy its IT infrastructure becomes. And things seem particularly acute now when business operations hinge on a myriad of interdependent software-driven services, each tied to a unique revenue-generating purpose. These applications, in turn, depend on massive computing resources, not to mention service-oriented architecture and IT Infrastructure Library processes to ensure an extensible, agile platform.

The result? Server sprawl, exponential data growth, power consumption, and nearly unmanageable infrastructures -- in short, a data-center environment spinning out of control. To manage it all, many IT organizations are turning to virtualization and blade-server technologies.

In many ways, these innovations are ideally designed to address server proliferation. Virtualization consolidates processing power into a compact physical footprint, frees up floor space, reduces network connections, and brings the administrative and operational efficiencies of fewer racks, wires, cables, and power supplies.

In addition, the technology holds out the promise of a stable, platform-independent approach to legacy-application hosting and better tools to monitor and calculate chargebacks. Virtualization also lets central data centers provide consistent and adaptable service levels to application and business units that want control of their servers -- that is, their operating systems and applications -- without having to support separate, disparate platforms.

Server virtualization gives IT administrators a view into the underlying physical server resource pool, plus an unmodified OS that allows computing-resource levels to be increased or decreased on demand to meet variable processing-capacity requirements such as higher end-of-month or end-of-quarter needs. While you still have to support multiple operating systems and applications, there are fewer physical resources to manage and the hardware platform is more fully utilized.

Toss in blade servers from Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Sun Microsystems, and others, and you have the ability to compact even more virtual machines, or separate OS instances, into a platform that provides flexibility and intrinsic healing capabilities. These blade platforms are expected to offer a diskless option by 2008, with SAN and network switches integrated, and will use more networked storage arrays, providing an opportunity to combine and more efficiently handle backup, replication, and disaster-recover requirements through the storage infrastructure.

If it all sounds too good to be true, it may be. Blade servers have their downside: They consume more power and generate more heat than most enterprise data centers were ever meant to handle. The average facility was built nearly two decades ago, when water-cooled mainframes were the rage, not air-cooled microprocessors and disks. If your data center hasn't begun to keep pace with new technology, blade servers may be too much, too soon.

We've studied the pros and cons based on experience with our clients to see whether blade servers are solving or creating problems in the data center. Do their efficiencies outweigh the higher costs of power and cooling? And is there a way to design or remodel your data center to ensure that infrastructure and utility costs don't outstrip operational savings?

There's no simple answer. Like a car whose mileage varies under different sets of driving conditions, your blade or virtual-server ROI will depend on the unique conditions in your facility. And your capital-budget allocation will determine when and whether to start fresh or just give your data center a facelift. To make the right deployment decisions, we advise clients to carefully consider the following factors:

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