Virtually confused

Virtually confused

The cacophony of terms that vendors use to promote the benefits of the rising trend of virtualisation can leave users overwhelmed about the technique.

Attracted by dazzling promises of dramatic reductions in the complexity and costs of infrastructures, some IT executives have made virtualisation one of the hottest topics in many years. It's being widely adopted because it delivers significant and almost immediate returns on investment for most user enterprises. All too frequently, the general concept of virtualisation is equated with the specifics of server virtualisation. That is because the latter has been a fixture of the IT landscape for decades. Further, as IT vendors move to cash in on the growing popularity of virtualisation, they are touting a growing array of offerings to implement, facilitate, organise, mitigate, and/or manage various aspects of this technique. Not surprisingly, while each vendor's sales efforts are well-intentioned, the numerous approaches and a cacophony of terms can leave users overwhelmed or confused.

Poor co-ordination

Virtualisation is being applied to all categories of IT resources across the enterprise, from servers to storage to networks to desktops. These deployments tend to be independently planned, implemented and managed. This lack of co-ordinated governance leads to increased management requirements and costs for not only the virtualised infrastructure, but also for all resources that link to and utilise it - increasingly, every key aspect of user IT.

But virtualisation can also cause problems when implemented in a rapid, unco-ordinated and poorly managed manner across multiple areas of user IT. Implementation without a well-defined set of goals - and a comprehensive plan that co-ordinates appropriate types of IT virtualisation across the enterprise - will drastically reduce potential savings and other benefits. User executives may also find they have merely traded the challenges associated with managing a real IT infrastructure for the difficulties of managing a virtualised IT infrastructure.

As a result, these same users may be laying a foundation of complexity and cost that threatens to not only reduce, but also eliminate, many of the cost advantages and management benefits that are possible from virtualisation. Problems tend to begin with misperceptions of the term itself. All too frequently, user executives - including both business and IT - perceive IT virtualisation as being equated with server virtualisation. Further, server virtualisation is frequently perceived as being equivalent to mainframe virtualisation, which has been a fixture of the IT landscape for decades. Both of these perceptions are wrong - and lead to missed objectives and opportunities, and a lot of failed implementations.

It is quite important to note that most virtualisation is not free. Virtualisation functionality is logic that must be performed by a real capacity resource. In the case of server virtualisation a classic trade-off is made: real server capacity is "spent" to "buy" the virtualisation function. Some virtualisation function can consume noticeable amounts of resource capacity, thereby increasing utilisation of the real resource beyond the utilisation resulting from the application workload(s) in a non-virtualised environment.

Then if there are so many areas of concern about implementation of virtualisation technologies, why is virtualisation so important? Virtualisation of IT is important - and increasingly attractive to both users and vendors - because it can enable dramatic cost reductions across practically all IT resources, from servers to networks to applications to storage. Virtualisation enables previously unusable capacity to be made use of. This delivers significant improvements in resource utilisation, operational efficiency, ongoing costs of IT and IT management.

Key constraints

It is to be expected that IT vendors will profit from this opportunity, but not to the full extent possible. Over the next five years, it is likely that management tools, processes, expertise, and services (not functionality) will remain the key limiting factor in the adoption of IT virtualisation by users.

Therefore, IT vendors should also focus on specific offerings that co-ordinate IT resource virtualisation and management within - and between - user enterprises.

Each category of virtualisation has unique characteristics that deliver substantial benefits, and is best suited for one or two primary uses. In addition, each form of virtualisation has unique implications for user IT and business organisation, operation and management.

For example, server virtualisation will have the single largest impact on budgets for IT hardware and support, but could pose significant challenges in managing workload service levels and in evolving internal business units from dedicated to shared IT resources.

Users should assess each category of virtualisation in terms of potential benefits and challenges within their organisations.

However, there is no shortage of opportunity for vendors in IT virtualisation. Virtualisation will be exceptionally disruptive in a variety of positive ways and will present new, expanded scales and scopes of opportunity, from servers to systems management offerings.

Chris Morris is director of services, IDC Asia Pacific. Email comments to

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