Taking Virtual Servers to the Next Level

Smart CIOs are using virtualization for much more than data center consolidation. They're becoming masters of flexibility—delivering results for the business like lightning-fast provisioning and greatly improved disaster recovery.

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While VMware is the clear leader in the virtualization technologies space, Microsoft has been lurking in second place for several years. But just what is it up to?

As noted in a recent report from 451 Group analyst John Abbott, in 2005 Microsoft announced its own hypervisor product, called Viridian, which would ship alongside Microsoft’s release of its Windows Server 2008 (also known as Longhorn) and would be a “serious threat” to VMware. Eighteen months later, Abbott writes, things don’t seem to be looking so good. “A promised public beta delivery of Viridian has been delayed to the second, rather than the first, half of 2007, and some key performance and scalability features will be held back to meet the shipment schedule.” (Microsoft has stated it plans to ship Viridian within 180 days of shipping Windows Server 2008.)

Abbott’s overriding question: Will Microsoft put up a significant fight, or is it already too far behind? Although there have been some technical snafus, Abbott predicts that if Viridian is “tightly bundled with the next generation of Windows, the company will win business by default.” That’s because Microsoft has its operating system and applications (SQL Server and Exchange) franchises to leverage, he notes. “Making virtualization a component of these existing offerings could squeeze out competitors,” he writes.

CIOs interviewed for this article say they’re interested in what Microsoft’s plans are but are content to wait and keep using VMware’s products. “VMware’s ESX server product,” says Matt Wilson, VP of IS for Chevy Chase Bank, “is the only enterprise-class solution right now.”

Rewriting Recovery Rules

Clearly, virtualization is helping CIOs like Sanzone and Abbene develop a rep for being fast responders to the business. What about when the stakes are raised? Since the turn of the millennium, organizations have become more aware of their need for better and more efficient business continuity and disaster recovery systems. More recent events such as 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, as well as new governmental regulations about data handling practices, have only reinforced that need. For a growing number of CIOs, virtualization has become a valuable tool in being able to quickly restart business operations and applications in times of man-made or natural disaster, and keep IT service interruptions (both planned and unplanned system maintenance) to a minimum. IDC’s Elliot says that the business continuity application of virtualization is “the next big iteration” as CIOs move forward.

Disaster recovery and backup operations have garnered much of the attention, simply because the time and cost savings CIOs can deliver to the business can be almost as dramatic as a flood or fire.

At the core, virtualization technology reduces the contents of servers to a set of files (called file encapsulation), which makes replication and restoration of all the contents much easier than traditional methods. In some cases, CIOs can reduce recovery time to just a few hours in a process that can be as simple as copying and pasting.

Chevy Chase Bank’s Wilson is currently migrating from a backup process that includes having to manage loads of backup tape. He’s found that the new virtualized system reduces a 20-hour recovery process per Windows server to 15 minutes for each of his virtualized blade servers. (Wilson has already been able to consolidate and virtualize his development group’s 100 servers to 14 blades, which amounts to a 7-to-1 ratio of physical server to virtual servers; by the end of 2007, he will have moved 160 production servers to two blade centers.) He notes that a huge advantage for the bank has been the speed at which his group can recover a virtual machine after a disaster.

Wilson’s now using a third-party company as his disaster recovery center, and his virtualized infrastructure has been strategic to the bank’s operations. First, he’s been able to cut his monthly disaster recovery costs because he doesn’t have to own a duplicate set of hardware and all of its associated costs—the power and cooling costs that come from all of those idling CPUs just waiting for a disaster. That’s no small number: IDC says that there’s $140 billion in excess server capacity sitting around worldwide right now.

In addition, because it’s easy to replicate the contents, Wilson doesn’t need staffers to ensure that the data between the two locations is in sync and that configuration changes and updates have been made in both locations, which can be incredibly complex due to dissimilarities in hardware types at the locations. “It’s a big time-saver,” he says. When asked what the value of his efforts is to the business side, his answer is simple yet critical: “We can quickly recover business applications—that’s the value.”

In Kane County, one of two data centers sits on a bank of the Fox River in Illinois, vulnerable to flooding. Siles has ensured that both data centers can be easily and quickly replicated to each other using VMware’s VMotion technology. That’s crucial, Siles points out, because county emergency personnel use these resources.

At Arch Coal, Abbene’s team has been able to reduce the time to recovery from six hours to two hours on virtualized servers that include active directory and base operating systems. “We’ve been able to speed up recovery, and we’re reducing costs with our [offsite] recovery vendor because of the fewer servers that we need,” Abbene says.

After businesspeople saw some of the disaster recovery results, they responded with a collective “Wow,” he says. “They said, ‘This is the fastest we have ever had this up.’”

Related:

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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