SPECIAL REPORT: Virtualization

Into the Clouds
The increasing use of virtualization has had an impact on the advent of cloud computing, which combines elements of software as a service (SaaS), virtualization and utility/grid computing. Made possible by the proliferation of high-speed Internet connections, cheap, powerful chips and disk drives, as well as the build-out of data centers that house up to thousands of computers to quickly serve sophisticated software to legions of users, industry observers maintain cloud computing will likely dominate the headlines in 2009. However, actual investments in this evolving technological initiative are likely to move forward more slowly, especially in public sector environments, said Josh Greenbaum, principal, Enterprise Applications Consulting, Berkeley, Calif.

Maneuvering Around Pitfalls

While the merits of virtualization are clear, including higher utilization of hardware resources, lower long-term capital expenses and operational flexibility, government organizations must still thoroughly assess the scope of their adoption and implementation strategies.

That's because the cost of implementation, the requisite skill sets required and core functionality provided in a virtual environment can vary widely. These elements require careful planning and management. Pitfalls to avoid include:
* Watch out for virtual machine sprawl. Many of the IT management tools in use today may not be up to the task for virtual environments, and without careful planning, can lead to production issues as bottlenecks and infrastructure choke points.
* Be mindful that virtual machines function in shared resource pools. If the virtualization environment isn't carefully managed, errant behavior from resource-intensive virtual machines on the same host can have a negative impact on availability and performance.

* Purse-strings alert: large-scale enterprise virtualization deployments can get costly. Licensing fees, redundant host servers and infrastructure components, as well as the cost of staff training can rise so high as to effectively reduce or eliminate an agency's cost-justification case.

Cloud computing promises to apply compute power, measured in the tens of trillions of computations per second, to problems such as delivering personalized medical information, or powering immersive simulations, in a way users can tap via the Web. This technology delivers supercomputing transaction-processing power over the Internet using networked groups of servers that
use low-cost consumer PC technology, with specialized connections to spread data processing chores across them.

Obstacles to adoption for most federal agencies revolve around questions related to securing information sent over the Internet. “Most government organizations will likely be slow to embrace the cloud computing concept because of concerns about securing Americans' sensitive and personal data,” Greenbaum explained.

That said, Greenbaum asserts the pressure to deal with the economic downturn and the unique challenges within
government to improve operations, modernize legacy systems and serve constituents in a more automated way makes this initiative ripe for a new way of thinking. “Cloud computing should probably dominate at least the planning focus for government organizations in the coming year,” he said.

Agencies, meanwhile, have also expressed skepticism about the ability of current cloud suppliers to meet service level agreements (SLAs), said Jorge Fuster, Principal for VirtualFedTeam, a federal IT staffing organization.

As virtualization technology rapidly commoditizes, Fuster asserts that federal agencies must examine the tools available for managing, monitoring and optimizing the allocation of virtual resources. “Organizations must take a closer look at tools that can help in gathering statistics and applying dynamic policies to better allocate physical resources among all of the consumers of those resources,”
he said.

While virtualization can effectively reduce physical data center requirements, it can also compound the complexity of managing servers, Fuster explained. Organizations should seek solutions that provide cross-platform systems management for both virtual and traditional server platforms. The ability to migrate legacy applications and existing operating systems, without modification, onto virtual machines is also important. Ultimately, virtualization is becoming more than primarily server-centric. “Because it's easier to move things around, encapsulate, archive and optimize components,
federal agency customers must seek the solutions that enhance their flexibility, or integrate virtualization with
legacy management tools,” Fuster explained.

Virtualizing infrastructure components and functions, such as security, load balancing and applications acceleration will help organizations to optimize performance and increase the efficiency of government IT operations.