Will Virtualization Really Save You Money?

Virtualisation Solutions‘The Death of the PC’, this was the title given to a Forbes.com article detailing the rise and increasing use of Virtualization in the business environment. Today’s Information Age has made the purchase and use of some form of IT infrastructure an integral and necessary component of most organizations.

For years the only change in this area has been about upgrades to the usual IT Infrastructure of servers, desktops and software. However, the technology of virtualization springing up these days is changing the very nature of this IT infrastructure, making some components unnecessary and even obsolete and providing key benefits to business consumers of IT.

‘Multi-tasking’, that’s a word familiar to many as these days, it’s not uncommon to look at any working man’s computer and see him running multiple programs such as an Internet browser, word processor, calculator, etc. at the same time. Virtualization takes multi-tasking onto a much grander scale. An IBM paper defines virtualization as ‘a technique for hiding the physical characteristics of computing resources from the way in which other systems, applications or end users interact with those resources.’ Simply put, virtualization allows you to run multiple virtual machines on a single physical machine. This can be done both on the ordinary PC and for servers. According to Paul Thomalla of Continuity Central, server virtualization ‘breaks the bond between the operating system (OS) and the underlying hardware. The physical elements of a server – motherboard, I/O, CPU, memory – are all recreated in software.’

Though there is much greater depth that can be reached in the study of virtualization we’ll stick here with the basic principles most relevant to businesses. Virtualization technology allows a single physical machine to run multiple Operating Systems or different operating systems concurrently. Common areas that may be virtualized include hardware, desktop and network. With hardware virtualization, the most important point to note is that the virtualization process results in the creation of several ‘virtual’ computers.

The traditional computer or laptop consists of a single operating system which can run several application programs. However, in the virtualized system, a single physical machine runs software, produced by businesses like VMWare or Citrix, which ‘abstract’ that computer’s physical resources so they can be shared amongst several virtual computers. If necessary, each virtual machine may run a different operating system and the advantageous element is that any operating system ‘crash’ will not affect others running on the same machine

A business looking to implement virtualization technologies will need to examine first what its exact virtualization or better yet its computing needs are. Desktop virtualization would allow employees in a business (or students in a school) to shift their working environment or ‘desktop’, including OS and applications, from one physical machine to another without losing or having to physically transfer the data. Although this may sound like the domain at your workplace, it goes much further. Employees just need an access terminal instead of a full desktop. Server virtualization would allow the business that requires servers or server hosting to split a single physical server to run multiple secure virtual servers. This would allow such a business to make more efficient use of its server resources and reduce hardware acquisition and maintenance costs.

So truly, why then should a business consider virtualization? Here are a few reasons

Cost. Despite increasing IT adoption, IT in Ghana continues to remain quite expensive, both in terms of quality infrastructure such as hardware and software as well as in quality technical expertise. As our nation does not have the firms directly producing many of these computing technologies such as desktop computers, servers, or the software we use, such items have to be imported adding to their already high costs and in general making IT a costly investment for any business. Quality IT staff may also be difficult to find and though this problem is being gradually alleviated it still may cost businesses quite a bit to hire and keep a number of IT professionals with the requisite skills to manage a large IT infrastructure.

One of the great benefits enjoyed by businesses who virtualize is a significant reduction in IT Infrastructure expansion and management costs. Virtualization, by creating several virtual computers or servers which offer the same functionality, helps businesses avoid expenditure from purchasing new hardware as their computing needs expand as well as cuts maintenance costs in having to care for few systems instead of a lot. In terms of cost, virtualization is also much lauded for the increase in efficiency it provides the user. Technology experts claim that a standard server will typically run at an average CPU utilisation rate of between five and fifteen percent; a server running virtual machines will provide greater efficiency and run at an average of between 60 and 70 percent’. Thus by virtualizing a business is able to make far more efficient use of its computing resources. Added to this, one cannot forget the reduced electricity bills from having less physical machines using power. Whetstone, a technology firm in the United States, expects to save 20%, or $2.4 million a year, in costs from implementing virtualization technologies.

Data/Application Continuity. As stated earlier any computer error or crash affecting one virtual system affects none of the others meaning that others in that virtualized environment may continue their work safely. The fact that a virtual machine is independent of the hardware it runs on means that a virtual computer can be recovered much quicker than the physical machine, also noting that if the problem is from the base server the virtual machine can be shifted over to another server using the same virtualization platform and the application quickly restarted without waiting for hardware repair.

Security. In a virtualized computing environment each virtual computer is independent from the others allowing a business to maintain several levels of security within the same physical computer. The same applies in server virtualization where several different virtual instances can be kept independently and secure from each other. Within the virtualized environment, the security of several virtual systems will be centralized in one physical location allowing for easier security management of several operational systems without the difficulty in moving back and forth between multiple physical locations. This idea of centralized security is the same one RIM implements in assuring the security of its Blackberry messaging systems.

Troubleshooting. Implementing virtualization within an organisation allows the IT Manager to perform specific troubleshooting operations without disturbing the other PCs or bringing the entire system down. The ease of troubleshooting in a virtual environment rests upon the fact that despite the presence of myriad virtual systems they all exist within a single physical location. This means that the troubleshooter need only move to a single location to address the problems of several virtual computers. ‘Ordinary’ troubleshooting is sometimes made difficult and costly simply because the IT manager would have to move between several physical computers over a possibly wide area, with virtualization this inefficiency could be resolved.

However, amongst all these advantages, it is important to note the drawbacks to implementing a virtualized environment.

High Risk. The reader will by now have realized that virtualization in effect is a form of system centralization. As with all centralized systems that risk remains that if the central, core system fails, all attached, ‘virtual’ computers or servers attached to that main physical system would fail as well. This risk is somewhat mitigated by the fact that the virtual machines with their applications  can be clustered on more than one physical server for high availability (still cheaper than clustering independent servers).

New Skills. Virtualization is still a ‘new’ technology, though it’s adoption is rising by the day. Thus the business in Ghana wishing to implement this technology must first well-research all its implications and have IT professionals skilled and qualified enough to understand and implement this technology. Thus current IT staff may have to be retrained or learn more to understand how to properly manage a virtualized IT infrastructure. Poorly implemented, virtualization will never live up to its hope and promise in any organisation.

Cost. Though reduced costs were one stated benefit of virtualization, costs also play a role in the drawbacks in virtualizing. Though virtualizing will bring reduced costs there are still some costs involved in purchasing the necessary base, physical infrastructure as well as the base, ‘hypervisor’ software from providers such as VMwareXen or Parallels.

Virtualization hasn’t caused the ‘Death of the PC’ yet but with companies able to enjoy such great cost advantages it may not be long before most business computers are merely cheap client PCs based on a large central server in a virtualized environment. Indeed Forbes has speculated that  ‘instead of spending $1,000 for a system with the latest Intel chip and a fast hard drive, a company might get by with a virtualized PC running on a screen, keyboard and network connector costing in all only $150’. Today, even educational institutions such as Cardiff University in Wales are implementing several virtualization technologies to streamline their processes in thousands of servers and cut costs.

All things considered, virtualization is an excellent emerging technology that presents great advantages to local organizations which invest heavily in an IT infrastructure. However, as with all things new, businesses should proceed cautiously and with wisdom, acknowledging the diverse benefits and risks this technology brings.

Terence Adjei-Otchwemah

Executive, Product Marketing and Media Relations

DreamOval Ltd.


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Twitter: @DreamOval_Ltd & @TerenceAdjei

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