The virtual dilemma

It seems like everyone is talking about virtualisation, those with a history in the IBM mainframe world will suggest they’ve seen it all before and indeed there are parallels when it comes to creating effective licensing structures.
According to Information Age’s Annual 2008 Effective IT Survey, virtualisation is this year’s hottest technology. The survey reports on the technologies that IT decision-makers have actively deployed in the enterprise. Over the last 12 months it demonstrated that adoption of virtualisation has soared and that over 85 per cent of those who have adopted the technology were already convinced of its effectiveness.
What are the real issues behind virtualisation? What are the different types of virtualisation? How should it be introduced, managed and monitored? What are the pitfalls? And how and when will an effective licensing structure evolve?
The green agenda
It is easy to suggest that it is the green issue that has swept virtualisation onto the IT director’s ‘must-tackle it’ agenda. Certainly environmental and sustainability concerns – and the potential to save power within the data centre – have been catalysts. But there are other reasons: an increasing demand for fast deployment and resilience, compliance, security, growing infrastructure complexity, mushrooming energy prices, and limits on power availability. A measure of virtualisation’s importance is that it is now on the finance director’s radar screen and also featured in the Dilbert cartoon strip, a clear signal that an issue has hit the Board’s agenda.
Virtualisation is a broad term that refers to the abstraction of computer resources. It’s a technique for hiding the physical characteristics of computing resources from the way in which other systems, applications, or end users interact with these resources.
There are actually three different kinds of virtualisation: Server (hardware) Virtualisation, enabling a single physical computing device to look like multiple devices; Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI), enabling organisations to manage their desktop resources; and Application Virtualisation, running software in an isolated ‘sandbox’ rather than via standard software installation.
Virtualisation is undoubtedly collapsing the amount of hardware organisations need to install, and it has completely changed the landscape for the IT director and the industry. However, virtualisation has disrupted the accepted link between software and hardware, and this means that both vendors and users alike now need to find new ways of licensing software. Many vendors in the software industry have been looking at this and debating how a licensing process might work.
One of the problems in take-up has been the lack of a co-ordinated response to virtualisation from the vendors and it is unlikely that a common virtual software licensing standard will evolve in the next three years. There will certainly be more responsibility on customers to track, monitor and prove metrics on virtualised systems, as many vendors will lack the tools to monitor true virtual licensing. Therefore, in some ways, the industry is moving ahead with virtualisation at one level and struggling at another.
In terms of licensing, there is no doubt that this has to be fair for the customer. If you are using a server from a third party, and just using 15 minutes in a monthly pay scheme, you could pay the same as someone using it every hour, every day under the same scheme. It has to be said, discussions like this, which involve complex virtualised licence pricing models, strike fear into customers and vendors alike. This is because neither contingent feels it has enough information to venture into a model that breaks with former licensing tradition and potentially introduces many unknown components.

Understanding the benefits
Rest assured, there are serious benefits to be gained from virtualisation, including more effective management and disaster recovery. There is also a management benefit. Instead of taking a day to duplicate a server, organisations can do this in ten minutes. In fact, it becomes so easy to create another server it can become too easy and customers need to be wary of this.
Some of the overriding benefits of moving to a virtualised environment include:

  • The ability to consolidate the workloads of servers to a single machine
  • Savings on hardware, environmental costs, management and administration of the server infrastructure
  • Provisioning efficiency and more rapid deployment
  • Powerful debugging scenarios
  • Easier software migration
  • Enhanced security and virus protection
  • Improvements to the user experience
  • Tasks such as system migration, backup and recovery become easier and more manageable
  • Savings on licensing costs
  • Reduced configuration management costs

Buyer beware
Although many organisations are now looking into ways of using virtualisation, there is a risk that organisations are already adopting it for the wrong reasons - for example, the finance director seeing virtualisation as a way to save money - or are falling into bad practices, with a breakdown in security a considerable risk.
Process, procedure and policy are critical. The flashing lights of the virtual environment must not distract companies. Poorly managed virtualisation can obscure software licensing obligations and leave an organisation exposed to unexpected costs. Software Asset Management and more importantly Software Licence Management need to become real-time disciplines that can manage increasingly dynamic virtual environments.
IT Asset Management becomes twice as important because physical and virtual assets need to be managed together consistently and the dynamic relationship between the virtual and physical must be tracked and auditable.

Tips for virtualisation success
Despite the success of companies like VMWare and IT directors’ awareness of virtualisation, it is still early days in terms of a picture of where widespread virtualisation will lead us. Virtualisation is here to stay. It will have its place like other technologies and it will help to solve issues and drive down costs, but it does require very careful planning.
It is another solution to another problem, not the solution to all our problems. I heard of one organisation that after virtualising now has twice as many servers as it did originally because staff have been bypassing corporate policies and procedures. Take heed, the success of your virtual environment will still come down to good IT management practices. For those organisations that are thinking of going down the virtual route, a few tips to remember:

  • Virtualisation or not, it’s still necessary to stick to good IT management principles
  • Both vendors and users will have to make some concessions on licensing
  • Getting towards a concept of ‘value’ would be useful for both
  • Think of the better deployment benefits in terms of support staff that virtualisation offers
  • Avoid the finance director’s ‘there’s a truckload of savings here’ thinking
  • Badly managed virtualisation could end up costing you more.

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