CIOs who have converted to virtualisation are keen to praise its cost benefits and preach the green benefits of its power savings, but for many the major benefits are yet to be realised. The virtualisation process provides massive opportunity to align IT with the business, and CIOs who are ahead of the virtualisation curve are taking that opportunity. Most CIOs who have gone down the virtualisation route are still in the process of virtualising their server farm. The early adopters are going beyond that, using the virtualised structure to be more responsive to the business. They are also the first who are considering how to manage being victims of their own success and how to continue to be responsive to the opportunities offered by virtualisation.
Once servers are virtualised, IT staff can provision servers in minutes, test new systems while the servers are online, and install security patches without downtime. Chris Tunnecliffe, group infrastructure architect at global reinsurance firm Aspen, describes the day-to-day benefits he has seen after virtualising servers. "The service improvements are vast. We don't have to constantly speak to the business about downtime. We are a true 24x7 business."
Business driver Tunnecliffe believes that the virtualisation process has allowed him to take a key role in driving the business. "Yesterday, I was sitting in a meeting with the risk managers - the heart and soul of reinsurance - who are planning a whole new application platform and want to know the lead time for implementation.
"In the past, that would have involved 20-30 servers and making sure there was enough power supply for them. It would literally have taken months. But I was able to tell them it would take less than a month."
Tunnecliffe adds: "Remote users that used to gain access through Citrix clients are excited by this as it gives them a true desktop -- there is no application we can't install. Users can roam globally, or between desks. Our employees are risk-modelling people and tend to run heavy applications. We were affected by heavy users slowing down the system, whereas VMware [the leader in virtualisation software] migrates the heavy user."
IT director Steven Dobson implemented virtualised servers to meet the business continuity and disaster-recovery needs of online pharmacy Pharmacy2u, which serves 250 general-practice surgeries across the UK. He then realised that the virtualisation he had implemented to ensure business continuity could also be used to grow the business.
Pharmacy2u hosts white-label pharmacy e-commerce systems, including one for a major supermarket. Some of its potential partners are much smaller though, and the cost of investing in servers and the hosting fees for smaller partners meant that Pharmacy2u was being forced to decline business.
"The fees were adding up, so we turned a few partners away. Now we can right-click and paste another server on to the network, rebrand it and the new partner is set up," says Dobson.
As virtualisation enables CIOs to be more responsive in providing point solutions, it drives more profound changes that will change structures and processes throughout the business, evoking quicker IT benefits.
CIOs can use the virtualisation process to centralize IT operations in a way that might before have been difficult to drive through for budgetary or cultural reasons. This can have a number of welcome effects, including improving data governance and discoverability, centralizing and retaining intellectual capital, and changing IT operations from being siloed by application or department to being a truly integrated force.
Tunnecliffe has used virtualisation as a lever to implement better security and governance, both of which are vital for a reinsurance company. "At the end of this week, I am replacing eight of the work-stations in the Lloyds section with thin clients for security and compliance as, no matter how I lock down a workstation, users will store important information on them."
Chris Ingle, consulting and research director at analyst firm IDC's European Systems Group, says: "The interesting thing for CIOs is how virtualisation is forcing better management processes. On the server side, we have done some work around mid-size organisations managing their server infrastructure. Most were using manual processes with huge cost implications, but you can't do that with virtualisation -- you have to have systems management. Virtualisation is driving management technologies, although this is sometimes counterproductive when people invest in big management suites."
He adds: "The process of virtualisation uncovers and consolidates servers, which is useful for businesses that find it difficult to adopt change as they are freed to do so."
Centre stage Richard Dawson, IT services manager of Bracknell Forest Borough Council, has used the virtualisation process as an opportunity to centralize and strengthen his control over IT operations. Virtualisation has meant we can pull servers back from other sites and consolidate back to central IT," he says. "Where we had diverse technology on funny hardware, we have been able to go out and grab the server. We are now central IT. We need to take control and run IT, whereas before there were IT factions in other areas." Dawson expects business benefits to flow from this centralization. "Longer term, we will be able to streamline data and how it is held. There are a lot more options as to how we can start to do things. It is moving on from servers to the next level."
First stages Martin Niemer, senior VMware product marketing manager, believes only a small percentage of CIOs are at the stage where they are using virtualisation to align their operations better with the business. "Many people are still at the stage of consolidating their servers and they need to finish the consolidation in order to save money before they can move on.
"2008 will be the year when lots of customers standardize on virtual technology. Over the past two years, they have been starting first deployments and creating the skill-sets. 2009 will be when many use the benefits of the virtualisation and understand the advanced functionality," explains Niemer.
Niemer believes that, in future, people are going to adopt processes to reflect the benefits of virtualisation, so, for example, internal approval processes that now take longer than server implementation will be accelerated. "CIOs will need to communicate to internal customers how they could decrease their deployment time if they were automating more of their processes," he says.
Ultimately, management structures face change. "The virtualisation technology brings teams much closer together. Previously, teams were siloed into network, storage and server teams, but now they have to work together on combined concepts. The organisation may also change," says Niemer.
CIOs who are well advanced in server virtualisation are planning their next steps. Dave Thornley, service support manager of learning and IT services at Sheffield Hallam University, found that virtualisation has greatly increased IT's alignment with the activities of the university. "We are increasing our support for innovation and making it much easier for someone with a bright idea to make it work," he says. "For example, we are looking more at Web 2.0 technologies to support teaching and learning, and we now have the flexibility to do that."
Such is demand that Thornley has had to rein in IT's responsiveness to requests for more servers. "We had a great rush and it was too easy to say 'yes' and then think, 'how am I supporting all this?' Now, we ask people to think about whether they can do things another way and explore the other options before we produce a server."
Two-thirds of server infrastructure at Sheffield Hallam is now virtualised and Thornley is considering desktop virtualisation. "It looks easy to have a virtual desktop infrastructure, but I am not convinced it is the right way to go simply because of the types of user we have. We have nearly 40,000 users, but only 7,000 PCs. If every user generates a virtual PC, we will have to start putting limits on it."
Neil Sanderson, Microsoft UK product manager for virtualisation, says: "As is often the case in IT, we tend to underestimate the human side of introducing new options. One City organisation set itself up to self-service, where the users can request server capability online. They went from a 20-day procurement cycle to an SLA of half an hour, which gave them great flexibility.
"This, however, fosters a new attitude to the IT department, as users request extra capacity first thing Monday morning and expect it to be installed by mid-morning. It is going to be a challenge to stay responsive and manage SLAs as expectations change."
Sanderson identifies meeting the challenge of providing data and applications to staff when they need them as a key factor aligning IT with the business. "A mixture of staff, contractors, outsourced functions and individuals who work at home can all have access to virtualised data and applications, and so can overseas contract staff who need access to data that has to remain located physically in the UK."
Sanderson also predicts a change of culture around departmental approaches to procurement. "[Until now] departments did projects and procured some IT, and the server belonged to that department. There will now be a culture change to consolidate that and deliver as a shared service. This will drive some centralization and consolidation but, equally, if CIOs really grasp the potential as I think they have, they can give control back to the user. If you have the management tools in place, you can give users the opportunity to scale to the services they are asking for."
Considering options Ingle believes that CIOs who have felt the benefits of server virtualisation need to allow the technology to bed down and pause for a while before introducing new projects. Then they can consider desktop virtualisation carefully to ensure it will meet user needs. "The range of virtual solutions for the desktop, all technically different, presents a confused picture," he suggests.
"As a CIO, can you really be bothered with the task of evaluating all the options with potential visibility to the entire organisation? The need to store each image of a virtualised desktop can result in huge storage requirements and that is not necessarily cost effective. You solve one problem and create another elsewhere. The client is always different from the server. Everybody will notice when it doesn't work," says Ingle.
Dawson is at this evaluation stage. "We are at a turning point," he says. "We are heavily into Citrix, with 400 thin clients out of 1,400 total clients. We are evaluating Chip PCs [tiny thin clients that fit into wall sockets] as one way to achieve centralized management of the desktop.
"A lot can be achieved with desktop virtualisation in terms of configuration, and we are testing to see if it is viable. There are benefits to holding data centrally, which is key to local government where, for example, you have social workers with laptops."
Dawson believes that changing the way the user interface works is a bigger challenge than server virtualisation. "We have had Citrix for many years, and it has taken a long time to get it right and match the look and feel of systems people are familiar with at home, such as Vista and XP."
Virtualisation looks set to transform how IT is delivered throughout organisations - from a piecemeal addressing of business units to a process-driven architecture. The technology provides an unrivalled opportunity for CIOs to align themselves with the business and consolidate their position at the heart of the enterprise.
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