Virtualizing spinning-disk storage systems is no longer simply a trend; its now the norm and considered vital to backing up, archiving and protecting data for a growing number of businesses large and small.
The days of simply adding storage hardware to an IT system and pouring in e-mail, word documents, spreadsheets, photos and everything else willy-nilly are essentially gone.
However, as the use of virtualization in storage environments increases, so does the need for tools to manage these virtualized systems. An increasing number of vendors-from large organizations such as Hewlett-Packard and VMware to smaller companies such as Scalent Systems-are readying products for release later this year that are designed to ease the management crunch created by storage virtualization.
Virtualization software allows a single desktop PC or server to be carved up to behave as though it were many different, separate computing systems; each virtualized node behaves almost identically to an independent physical machine. As a result, capacity that would normally go unused can be put to work doing different storage duties at different levels of availability.
By the end of the decade, virtualization will be more the norm and less the exception. Virtualization transforms physical hardware-such as servers, hard drives and networks-into a flexible pool of computing resources that businesses can expand, reallocate and use at will.
Over the past few years, virtualization has started to move from test environments to production scenarios, according to industry observers. Analysts say they expect the pace of adoption to increase and say IT managers are searching for better tools, demanding more power and flexibility, and finding new ways to apply virtualization techniques.
Data storage use percentages in general are low, analysts say. It is common to find that companies write only 10 to 15 percent of their business data to a storage apparatus, leaving 85 to 90 percent of capacity in machines that constantly draw in power for availability and cooling. With the current emphasis on power conservation and eliminating so-called greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, having servers-or portions of servers-sit idle is not the most efficient use of expensive capital goods.
The problems of efficiency can be seen in the sheer numbers of servers that currently are being used-30 million installed in the United States alone, according to research company IDC.
In most cases, analysts report, companies are persuaded by sales representatives from storage companies to purchase much more capacity than they actually need.
"The server-any server-doesn't care what information is on it," said Patrick Eitenbichler, marketing manager for HP's StorageWorks business, in Cupertino, Calif. "It needs to use the same power draw whether it's empty or full. And there's really not much difference between regular app/Web/database servers and storage servers here. The main thing is that storage servers are always going to need more capacity, while regular servers use the load balancing in virtualization to utilize the finite capacity they have."
Successful virtualization deployment also means that the number of storage servers can almost always be trimmed way down-sometimes as much as tenfold-with better utilization of each machine, analysts say. This isn't particularly good news for storage hardware makers, but the increasing number of first-time buyers in the marketplace has more than offset the consolidation effect of virtualization, at least up to now.
Using virtualization software, a roomful of servers can be consolidated into a single physical box, provided that it is powerful enough.
"Pundits claim this trend is cyclical because its returning us to the old days of a single large, powerful computer-??Ã la the mainframe-running all of the tasks in an organization," said James Bottomley, chief technology officer at business continuity and disaster recovery provider SteelEye Technology, in Palo Alto, Calif.
"Although the modern consolidated, virtualized server is unlikely to look anything like the old mainframes, it's instructive to examine virtualization in light of this mainframe comparison to see if there are any lessons to be learned," Bottomley said.