Flipping the virtual switch

Systems integrators are helping agencies get comfortable with virtualization

The benefits of a virtualized computer infrastructure are clear: improved server use and reduced server room space and power requirements.

But moving from a traditional infrastructure to a virtualized one has its challenges. In a traditional setup, a single server runs a single application, but in a virtualized system, several virtual servers running multiple applications exist on one computer.

Although the advantages of virtualized infrastructures are many, making the switch can be a major cultural shift for many government agencies, said Tom Simmons, area vice president of federal systems at Citrix Systems Inc.

One Citrix customer was concerned that in a virtualized environment, the average user wouldn’t be able to tell where a particular application resided.

“There is that cultural ‘warm and fuzzy’ about being able to look at and touch the physical infrastructure that’s running a financial application or [a human resources] application,” Simmons said. “I think that is part of what the government has to deal with, and therefore, systems integrators are going to have to become very adept at dealing with that cultural change.”

Systems integrators need to help organizations understand that workload is workload, and the platform on which the work is performed doesn’t matter. As long as the information technology department meets uptime requirements and makes timely application fixes, where an application resides is not important.

In a virtualized environment, an application’s location can change daily, monthly or weekly. As workloads and demands change, the virtual environment can be adjusted to meet those needs.

“The beauty of virtualization is that we can accomplish that,” Simmons said. “I think culturally the government user has to embrace that and get comfortable with that before virtualization is going to be truly successful in the government arena.”

A recent virtualization project at the Internal Revenue Service provides a good model for other agencies, Simmons said. Instead of virtualizing the entire environment, IRS virtualized a single application. Starting slow gives the IT department an opportunity to see what it is like to work in a virtualized environment.

Management rules change
Although managing a virtualized data room is supposed to be similar to managing a traditional infrastructure, that generally doesn’t turn out to be the case, experts say.

Troubleshooting a problem in a traditional environment is slightly easier because systems integrators know which servers are running which applications. In a virtual environment, that arrangement can be more difficult to pinpoint at a given moment. Software tools designed to map and manage virtual environments can help ease those issues.

For example, CIRBA Inc. produces virtualization and consolidation analysis software that enables organizations to build dynamic models of virtual and physical infrastructures. That information allows IT employees to identify ways to improve performance and minimize operating risks.

CIRBA’s software builds dynamic models of existing IT environments. The models provide a consolidated view of the business, technical, configuration and workload data typically stored in disparate systems.

“One of the things that has been a bit overplayed at times is that the design, implementation and then the ongoing management of the new virtualized data center is supposed to be pretty much like managing a conventional data center,” said Rich Miller, chief executive officer of Replicate Technologies Inc. “It turns out operating and administering the virtualized data center bring on some new issues.”

In particular, challenges arise when using advanced features, such as hot migrations, which allow you to move an arbitrary virtual computer to various locations. Those kinds of options could lead to unintended but significant consequences.

For example, a user might complain that a particular application isn’t accessible from 2 p.m to 3 p.m. on certain days.

“Well, it turns out that one of your uses of hot migration could have moved a particular virtual server onto a specific physical server that has restricted or overused networking,” Miller said. “It could be placed in a spot that, because of a misconfiguration, suddenly parts of the application disappear.”

Because of the rapidly moving environment in a virtual machine data center, trying to track down the cause of the problem is like playing the arcade game Whac-A-Mole, Miller said.

Replicate’s software provides visibility into the physical and virtualized infrastructures and provides a full, unified vision.

Getting that full view is important for systems integrators charged with maintaining a virtual environment, Miller said.

“The speed with which things change and the fact that the migration level of virtual machines to some physical resource is done under automated control require that integrators think through the entire data center,” he said.

Hardware is part of the puzzle
Although software plays the biggest role in virtualizing servers and storage, hardware is also part of the equation.

Most organizations can use their existing hardware to make the switch to virtualization. But when it comes time for technology refreshes, systems integrators will find that all the major vendors offer virtualization-specific hardware.

For example, Sun Microsystems Inc.’s CoolThreads Servers come with integrated virtualization technology. Sun’s Logical Domains technology provides virtualization capabilities for the servers, allowing systems integrators to create as many as 128 virtual servers on one system.

Hewlett-Packard Co. offers blade servers specifically made for virtualization. The ProLiant BL495c is part of a family of servers for organizations that need many virtual machines. The systems are designed for easy expansion, which is often needed in a virtualized environment.

A flexible hardware strategy is important because virtualization technology is rapidly changing and expanding, said Christopher Ratcliffe, director of solutions and services at Dell Inc.

Ratcliffe recommends that integrators build systems that provide the fastest return on investment. “You should always be aiming for the fastest return on investment that you can possibly get because in three years, a lot of the fundamentals or underlying capabilities will have changed,” he said.

Another way to prepare for the rapid changes is to choose hardware and software with open standards. Locking into a proprietary system can lead to problems later when an organization wants to expand or move additional applications into a virtualized environment.

Systems integrators should also be aware that the demands virtualized environments put on hardware tend to differ from a traditional single-application, single-server environment.

“The platforms need much more memory than they have in the past,” Ratcliffe said. “It used to be we were always CPU-bound in past server environments. Now the processors that we’re using and their platforms across the board are so powerful that we’re not really held back by processor power in a virtualization environment.”

Like other manufacturers, Dell worked with the processor makers and software companies to build virtualization-specific servers.

Dell’s PowerEdge R805 is designed for balanced virtualization performance. It is tuned to provide virtualization performance based on processor technology, memory capacity and input/output scalability.

For companies looking for federal opportunities involving virtualization, Simmons said he recommends finding agencies that have older applications that don’t require much maintenance. “Agencies will look to move those applications to virtual machines running on servers with more processing horsepower, more memory than the legacy application would have required,” he said.

That model offers a better return on investment than buying individual servers for those applications during technology refreshes. Each application will run on a virtual server, but several of those virtual servers can reside on a single new physical server.

Doug Beizer (dbeizer@1105govinfo.com) is a staff writer at Washington Technology.

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