Everyone's Virtualizing � Aren't They?

By Drew Robb

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On the face of it, it seems every company in the world is rushing headlong into the world of virtualization. They are virtualizing every server and every blade, using this technology to consolidate all their servers, and running dozens of virtual machines (VMs) on each box in their data center. Or are they?

“Over fifty percent of enterprises use virtualization today,” said Bob Gill, chief research officer for TheInfoPro (TIP). “It has been embraced so quickly compared to other technologies we have been tracking over many years.”

With the other breath, however, he exposes the fact that few of these companies have rolled virtualization out widely. According to TIP figures, 80% of organizations using virtualization have deployed it on from one-to-50 servers. He tempers this by noting that 60% of those using it intend to invest more dollars in it next year.

These findings are consistent with those of Metrics Based Assessments (MBA) LLC, a data center benchmarking, consolidation and relocations consultancy based in Milford, CT. In the past two years, 95% of the data centers MBA has benchmarked have a server virtualization program. While some have as many as 20 instances of the operating system (or images) running on Windows servers, most have considerably less.

When you divide the number of images by the number of servers, the results are far from emphatic about the adoption rates for virtualization. They seem to indicate that enterprises are only virtualizing a few machines, about 1.1-to-1.2 images per server with little difference between UNIX, Linux and Windows.

“I don’t think people can virtualize fast enough when it is a priority,” said Mark Levin, senior partner at MBA. “But it just isn’t as big a priority as it seems.”

TIP Study

TIP has been conducting virtualization surveys for several years. Most respondents insist virtualization is critical to achieving business objectives and cite server sprawl and application growth as big drivers. Not surprisingly, the primary reason behind adoption is consolidation.

Gill reports that virtualization is also gradually making its way up the server food chain. Whereas early deployments were on small, low-powered servers, it is appearing on more and more on the radar screen for 4-way and 8-way models. Particularly in 2008, he expects an explosion in the adoption of virtualization in these larger x86 server configurations.

Further, companies are tending towards virtualization on a multi-core rather than a single-core platform. “The sweet spot for virtualization is probably in the two-way and four-way multi-core server market,” said Gill.

IT managers, it appears, are utilizing these machines primarily to support new applications rather than existing apps or databases. And perhaps surprisingly, they are relatively slow to roll out virtualization to blades. TIP figures reveal blades won’t become predominantly virtualized until 2009. This reticence could be due to unresolved issues over software licensing, support, performance under load and other issues with virtualization which have yet to be ironed out.

“Server virtualization is still the Wild West,” concludes Gill.Meanwhile, server virtualization pioneer VMware thoroughly dominates the market. Almost 90% of respondents are either deploying or plan to deploy VMware, compared to just less than 40% for IBM LPAR (logical partition) and about 35% for Microsoft Virtual Server.

“VMware is by far the most popular form of virtualization followed by IBM LPAR and Microsoft Virtual Server,” said Gill.

Money Matters

Despite soaring popularity and massive vendor/media hype, virtualization is far from everywhere. Part of the problem may be simple economics. Levin of MBA points out that virtualization doesn’t actually buy a whole lot of cost reduction. The only real savings for now are in terms of server hardware.

“By reducing the server footprint, you buy back a little space, a little capacity, and maybe less electrical spending,” said Levin. “But that doesn’t add up to a whole lot.”

He believes the real gains come when common images are used, i.e. every Windows image used in the enterprise, or at least on a large number of servers.

“The number of people required to maintain Windows accounts for 49% of data center spending,” said Levin. “If you eliminate all the one-offs, you can make a big dent on the personnel side of the budget.”

MBA has benchmarked a number of data centers in the past year that are implementing standard server images and minimalized the number of one-offs. On average, said Levin, the technical services organizations for these data centers are smaller than the norm by 30-to-40 percent.

Richard Villars, an analyst with International Data Corp (IDC), highlights another angle on the virtualization economics debate: IDC studies show the percentage change in server shipments has been plummeting since the end of 2003.

For the last quarter of 2006, it was less than two percent. This is the lowest increase in many years. He calls this the virtualization effect—spending on servers is increasing yet unit growth has stalled. Conclusion: Companies are using virtualization to contain the growth in server numbers rather than harnessing the technology to completely alter the underlying management framework of the data center.

That is supported by TIP. Despite server sprawl, data centers are expected to do more with less.

“2007 server budgets are expected to remain fairly flat with 2006 levels,” said Gill. “Simple consolidation for cost cutting is still the dominant factor for deploying virtualization.”