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7/3/2003
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Virtual Views

Companies are turning to new tools to maximize their server resources

The key to cutting down the number of servers in the data center--a goal for many companies--is to boost each server's utilization rate, so fewer systems can handle more work. To do that requires allocating and reallocating computing resources to the applications and business processes that need the most horsepower. That's easy on mainframe and Unix systems but more difficult on Intel-based Windows servers.

That's about to change, enabling business-technology execs to seriously consider low-cost Wintel systems for server-consolidation projects. A Gartner survey of 475 IT managers in December found that 92% are considering server consolidation.

Enhancements VMware Inc. introduced last week for its ESX Server software should make it much easier for IT buyers to manage "virtual" Windows servers. Customers will get another option in December--and VMware will face its toughest competitor--when Microsoft unveils enhance- ments to Virtual Server software it bought from VMware rival Connectix Corp.

It's unclear where Virtual Server will fit into Microsoft's Dynamic Systems Initiative. The virtual machine will ship first as a standalone product, but Microsoft hasn't ruled out embedding it within Windows. For the first version of Virtual Server, Microsoft is adding the ability to let systems administrators automatically generate virtual machines as needed and supporting SCSI-connected drives in addition to IDE interfaces. Version 2.0 will let users create virtual machines that behave as if they have two processors. Later this month, VMware will offer Virtual SMP with ESX Server, which will let virtual servers pull resources from multiple processors and run more resource-intensive apps, such as Oracle 9i, SQL Server, and Exchange Server, on virtual servers.

Five-year-old VMware says next quarter it plans to roll out Control Center, a management tool that provides an overall view of multiple virtual servers, as well as something called Vmotion, for moving a virtual server from one physical server to another, without interrupting the apps running on the virtual server. "With this technology, you've gotten away from [being] constrained by the size of your physical capacity," says Illuminata analyst Gordon Haff.

VMware's ESX Server has its own operating system and runs on a variety of hardware platforms; the vendor also offers GSX Server, which runs on top of Windows. National Gypsum Co. has been using ESX Server since 2001 as part of a server-consolidation project that has cut spending on servers by 30% and generated more server resources for E-commerce. Part of the savings comes from easier management, says Alan Thomas, senior technical consultant for Gypsum's E-commerce department, who hopes Control Center can deliver bigger-picture management capabilities. Each virtual machine is self-contained in its own file, he says, so "whenever you have to restore a virtual server, in times of a disaster or emergency, it's just like restoring a file."

The ability to partition Windows servers lets customers find new ways of cutting costs on servers that already are relatively inexpensive, says Vernon Turner, IDC's group VP for global enterprise server solutions. With benefits like that, it's no wonder that both VMware and Microsoft report a lot of interest in virtual-server technology. VMware says it's on track to double its sales from last year, although the privately held company won't provide details. (Prices for ESX start at $3,750 for a two-processor server and $7,500 for a four-processor server.) Microsoft in April began offering a preview version of Virtual Server on its Web site and says it has been downloaded more than 12,000 times.

Some users are still leery about Windows' reliability as a data-center operating system, and that may give VMware an edge. Six months ago, Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Co. chose VMware's software over Connectix's product for a Windows server-consolidation project because ESX Server has its own operating system. "It alleviates concerns about the stability of Windows," says Allan Campbell, assistant VP of IT architecture at MassMutual. By consolidating 75 Hewlett-Packard servers onto four eight-way IBM servers, the financial-services company expects to increase server-utilization rates from about 10% to at least 75%.

Server-virtualization and -management products fit into two major IT trends: utility, or on-demand computing, and IT automation. HP, IBM, Sun Microsystems, and others have laid out strategies for creating data centers that deliver IT resources when and where they're needed. They're developing products and forging alliances to deliver pieces of the plans. HP in June disclosed an agreement to resell VMware's technology, and by the end of the year, companies will be able to buy HP Utility Data Center bundled with data-center automation software from Opsware Inc. that automates the management of applications and operating systems. VMware and Computer Associates plan to introduce management enhancements later this month that will make it easier to use Control Center with CA's software.

How do the steps Microsoft and VMware are taking rate? They're pretty big, says Illuminata's Haff, who calls them an "enabling piece of the utility-computing nirvana. This is utility computing from the bottom up."

Illustration by Michael Morgenstern

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