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IW 500: Virtualizing Servers Is A High Wire Balancing Act

Virtualization is well under way at some shops, just getting started at others. The goal is primarily server consolidation, but many fringe benefits follow.
Virtualization is well under way at some shops, just getting started at others. The goal is primarily server consolidation, but many fringe benefits follow.One of those fringe benefits is converting select virtual machine systems into high availability systems with virtualized stand-bys, said attendees at a birds-of-a-feather session on virtualization at the Information Week 500 conference in Tucson Sept. 18.

About 25 out of 30 attendees at the session had already committed to virtualizing part of their data center servers and aired their concerns about finding the skills to accomplish the task. Universities are cranking out computer science graduates who have heard of virtualization and understand the concept but have little real world training in the process. In most cases, IT staffs will have to train their own, taking a system administrator skilled in Windows, Linux and Unix as the best candidate, they said.

Bill Johnson, VP of global information technology for Intergraph and T. X. Ho, senior director of IT global computing infrastructure at Sybase, described their efforts to virtualize their data centers. Ho said Sybase has started down a path of reducing 1,500 servers to 800, opening up floor space and reducing power consumption. But he said the return on investment required a total cost of ownership approach, where the need to train staff and manage the data center differently had to be taken into account. Hard ROI figures were difficult to come by, he said.

Chetan Patwardhan, CEO of Stratogent, an application management consulting firm, warned that the savings from virtualization, while real, can disappear if the attempt to put more applications on a server leads to the wrong mix. Understanding the nature of the applications being virtualized is critical to virtualization's success. If the applications all have similar peak demand periods, their I/O traffic will choke the server's channels and keep multi-core processors humming away on idle.

"Trying to determine what you've got [in unvirtualized applications] can eat up $100,000. You can see the savings expected from virtualization evaporate," he warned.

Jerry Johnson, CIO of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, a U.S. Dept. of Energy facility, said his firm had virtualized 50% of its servers and had strived to get the right mix by balancing the combinations on a given server. Skilled systems administrators, studying the traffic patterns of an application, can achieve the right blend, he said.

In addition, Ho said Sybase will spend $2 million virtualizing its data center and avoid the known expense of an $8 million expansion of its data center. And that, he said, was just the most obvious cost savings of several expected.

Questions arose about non-x86 instruction set virtualization, such as Sun Microsystems Solaris Containers, targeted for use at Cummins, the diesel engine manufacturer in Columbus, Ind.