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Virtualization and systems management -- a look ahead

Virtualization and systems management: Rapid growth of virtualization technologies in the data center might make managing workloads easier and more efficient.

Virtualization and systems management:

Try to sell most data center managers on the real joys of virtualization, and you'll find yourself preaching to the choir. Most know the benefits -- consolidation, flexibility and increased utilization. But some managers might not know that they have some big decisions to make about the future of their virtual environments.

Nearly 60% of Fortune 1000 companies are virtualizing their servers, while another 30% have plans to do so, according to a recent study by New York-based research firm TheInfoPro Inc. The explosive growth of virtual technologies has caught some IT folks off guard.

"Our virtual environment is growing faster than I thought it would," said Joe Foran, director of IT at Family Services Woodfield, a nonprofit group based in Bridgeport, Conn. "Most of our core infrastructure runs on virtualization."

The growth of the virtual environment in the data center has expanded the number of platform possibilities and created a market for tools to manage virtual machines.

Which platform to pick? What tools to buy? The decision is far from a no-brainer. Data center managers will be able to select from an expanding menu.

The data center had been VMware Inc.'s virtual oyster until the last 18 months, according to Tony Iams, senior analyst with Ideas International in Port Chester, N.Y. But VMware's ESX Server is now seeing competition from a pair of powerful rivals.

With Microsoft's Virtual Server 2005 now available and the open source Xen entering the picture later this year, data center managers now have two choices to deploy their virtual machines and hypervisors to control them.

"The stakes are high for the outcome of this decision," Iams said.

After deciding which platform to choose, data center managers will have to go tool shopping. Iams said as more and more data center managers begin to realize the benefits of virtualization and how it can change their whole operations, the more they will understand they need different management tools.

Over the next 18-24 months, Iams believes there will be greater focus on tools to manage virtual workloads. Vendors you've heard of -- and some that might not even exist yet -- will step in or start up to meet the demand. "It's a much more complex set of software," Iams said.

"VMware is the early leader; HP will dramatically step up its presence," Iams said. "Microsoft is a bit of a laggard, but I expect them to enter this space with a vengeance, along with a profusion of startups."

"It's a fantastic market to be in if you're a software developer," Foran said. He's waiting another three to four months before deciding what tools to buy.

Iams also pointed out that provisioning software is an emerging technology that will be critically important to data center managers. Provisioning automates the problematic process of putting software on the hundreds or even thousands of servers launched in a virtual environment. "I see the decision about provisioning software as the next strategic decision to be made," Iams said.

Karthik Rau, director of product management at Palo Alto, Calif.-based VMware, predicts more progress in security.

"Data protection, encryption and quarantining solutions is easier around a virtual rather than physical environment," he said. "I see innovation in those areas over the next few years."

Rau added that other vendors are working with VMware on new virtualization products for disaster recovery and high availability -- and trying to pitch those products to midmarket firms. "[Right now] SMBs [small and midsized businesses] don't think they're candidates for disaster recovery or high availability because it's not affordable." But Rau sees that attitude changing.

Foran hopes that the near future will bring a marriage of grid and virtualization technologies. "We have an ungodly number of old machines in our basement," he said. "I'd love to see a product to put multiple systems with NAS [network-attached storage] or SAN [storage area network] back in for storage and combine the processing power to build a grid virtual machine farm."

Wish lists like Foran's might also guide where virtualization goes over the next few years.

Rau said VMware products evolve based on what customers say they'd like to see. "Most customers choose to implement virtualization for one solution then see other benefits and want solutions for them, too."

Data center managers should also try to standardize requests to their vendors, according to Robert Fogel, director of worldwide grid strategy and business development for Intel Corp. He said it's important to remember that virtualization isn't just at one level but comes in layers that are both rich and deep.

"Data center managers need to converge on a standard way of looking at virtualization and a standard way of demanding it from their vendors," Fogel wrote in an e-mail to

"Generally, the biggest changes will come from how virtualization services will be offered/orchestrated at one end of the spectrum and how hardware/platforms will assist the virtualization of operating systems, applications and data."

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