Editors Note: This opinion is part of a new series of stories from the reporters and editors of Ziff Davis Internet. Instead of the usual mile-high viewpoint, these articles examine a particular technology or market in transition and tell you whats in store for the year ahead.
The blind men had a heated argument over the elephant.
One was sure that the elephant was like a wall, another like a snake, another like a tree and so on.
The moral of the tale was, of course, that if you only see one side of a thing, you really dont see the whole of the thing.
Welcome to virtualization.
Depending on which vendor youre listening to, virtualization is everything from virtual storage to grids to virtual machines to utility computing and back again. So, what is it really?
According to IDCs vice president for system software, Dan Kusnetzky, its all these things and more.
In the IDC taxonomy of virtualization, there are no fewer than four components, all of which are being called virtualization technologies or VES (Virtual Environment Software) as IDC styles it, by various vendors
These are: virtual access software, virtual application environment, virtual processing software and virtual storage software.
On top of these, vendors or service providers must also have virtual management and security programs to keep the technology working and safe.
Needless to say, this can be more than a little confusing for an IT department that is considering virtualization. And, puzzled or not, virtualization is exactly what many CIOs and CTOs are planning on as they prepare IT budgets for 2006.
IT departments are doing this to try to find “ways to use the newest in technology (processors, storage, memory, communications, and software) to improve: the application environment by increasing performance; optimizing processor utilization through workload management, scalability and reliability; increasing organizational efficiency by reducing costs of hardware, software and staff; and reducing both the number and the impact of system outages regardless of the underlying reason,” said Kusnetzky.
At a recent Gartner Symposium/ITxpo, Gartner Inc. vice president John Enck called virtualization a “megatrend.”
“We see virtualization being extremely important across all server types” and “virtualization is the best tool you have right now in the market to increase efficiency and drive up the utilization of your servers,” said Enck.
What all this boils down to is that virtualization should make todays more powerful computers more productive while simultaneously making them easier and cheaper to manage.
The trick is how to make this happen.
It should also be kept in mind that simply because one can virtualize IT processes, it doesnt mean that you can magically reduce your IT costs.
Thomas Bittman, a Gartner distinguished analyst, said: “Although processing power is relatively inexpensive (and getting cheaper), space, power, installation, integration and administration are not inexpensive.”
So, if your company is working for some kind of magic bullet for IT costs, think again.
You also must do your homework to know exactly what it is that each virtualization technology and solution can do for your business. Simply picking something because it has that magic word in the title and comes from a first tier ISV (independent software vendor) when hoping for performance improvements and cost savings for your particular enterprise is a fools game.
Lets start with what IDC calls, “Virtual Access.” This is software that enables users to run applications from almost any device over just the network, without needing it to be modified.
If that sounds familiar, it should. Applications like Linux-based SafeDesk Solutions SafeDesk Server for thin-clients, Citrix Systems Inc.s Citrix Access (formerly MetaFrame) for remote Windows desktops and Salesforce.coms AppExchange for Web-based, on-demand applications are all variations on this theme.
Which one is right for you, of course, depends on your needs. For example, a company with older PCs and a need for centralized control might well look to a thin-client approach.
While, at the same time, a company that needed users working on a single CRM (customer relationship management) program might look to SugarCRM Inc.s Sugar Professional.
Virtualization Is Not a
“One Size Fits All” Solution”>
When it comes to virtual access, there are no “one size fits all” solutions.
Virtual application environments enable specially written applications to be more robust while being unaware of its underlying operating platform.
IDC considers some application server software and parallel database software to fit into this category.
An example of this is software written with the open-source Globus Toolkit. These programs, unlike those written simply to use the resources of a cluster, can find available resources when needed over the grid.
Virtual processing is the kind of virtual software that most people think of when they hear the word virtualization. However, even within virtual processing, there are really two very different kinds of software.
Virtual machines are the most common. These make a single system appear to be many computers, and “single-system image clustering software, which makes many systems appear to be a single computing resource running a single operating environment,” observed Kusnetzky.
On desktops, the first kind is often useful for developers. It helps desk workers and people who need to run an application that doesnt run natively on their operating system.
That said, multiple images of operating systems running on a single powerful computer has long been one of IBMs tricks in the trade. IBM was already making a billion dollars from Linux in 2003. The bulk of that revenue, as it is today, came from running Linux instances on IBM zSeries mainframes.
By enabling its powerful mainframe and midrange computers to work as multiple Linux servers, IBM has turned what was once considered old iron into profit.
As William Zeitler, senior vice president and group executive for IBMs STG (Systems and Technology Group) said, while announcing a new IBM mainframe line, the Z9 in July, “The reason the mainframes have grown over the last four or five years is their ability to run new workloads [like Linux].”
Specifically, the ability to run Linux as virtual machines—LPARs (logical partitions) in IBM jargon—has driven IBMs sales.
Virtual storage is another old concept thats getting a lot more attention. By abstracting away the need to know the actual location of data and programs, implementing SAN (storage area networks) and NAS (network attached storage) to add storage becomes much easier.
Examples of this kind of software include IBMs SAN Volume Controller, Hitachi Data Systems TagmaStore Universal Storage platform, and EMC Invista.
Unlike the other types of virtualization, virtual storage really tries to accomplish the same goal across its vendors and technologies: provide more storage without requiring application designers or system administrators to worry about the details of physical media or file systems.
Finally, just to keep things complicated, there are kinds of virtual programs that dont fit neatly into any of these categories.
For instance, theres DataSynapse Inc.s FabricServer. Here, the idea is to virtualize transactional applications within a grid environment.
These applications can be running on J2SE, J2EE or .Net. FabricServer shields users from the nitty gritty of using several different applications by providing them with a common interface and the middleware to bind users and applications together.
Can this technology hodgepodge we call virtualization help you in 2006? The answer is indeed yes.
But, one cannot understate the need to look carefully at exactly what it is youre buying into. Weve only scratched the surface here.
In addition, vendors often dont make things easy for you because they use virtualization and its related terms in a very casual manner.
Its not enough to simply say that a cluster of computers is a grid solution. Unless the applications running on that cluster can dynamically use the clusters resources as needs change, its not a grid, its simply a cluster.
That said, maybe all you need is a cluster. Understanding your needs as well as the complications of virtualization is a must if youre really to make the most of this megatrend.
After all, you want to really see this elephant, not just one side of it.
Ziff Davis Internet Senior Editor Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been working and writing about technology and business since the late 80s and thinks he may just have learned something about them along the way.