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Case Study: Virtual machines deployed on the sly

IT execs duck user gripes and odd pricing schemes with covert jobs.

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The promise of virtualisation technology has convinced some companies to require that most new applications be run immediately on virtual machines.

Such a rush to virtual servers is certainly under way at The Hartford Life and Accident Insurance Co., where "the standard is that everything new comes in on virtual servers," said Bruno Janssens, senior architect in the company's infrastructure services group.

A dozen of the insurer's 5,000 servers are currently virtualised, as are some 500 Windows XP client machines, he said.

However, IT managers at some companies can feel forced to hide plans from end users and vendors in order to overcome potential objections to virtualisation, said IT professionals and analysts attending [sister publication] Computerworld's Infrastructure Management World (IMW) conference, held earlier this month in Scottsdale, Arizona.

In some cases, end users object to virtualisation because they're concerned that virtual machines lack the security and performance of dedicated servers. At the same time, many IT operations must deal with vendors that either prohibit them from implementing their software on virtual machines or establish convoluted pricing schemes for virtualised setups.

Companies are taking a variety of measures to overcome such obstacles, including adopting "don't ask, don't tell" policies in order to get virtual applications running without notifying users and vendors.

In the latest instalment of a twice-yearly survey by The InfoPro, a consulting firm, about 40 percent of respondents from 150 large companies said they aren't asking business units for permission to implement server virtualisation. "Server pros are saying, 'I guarantee [service-level agreements], and the users don't need to know how I do it,'" said Bob Gill, director of server research at The InfoPro.

Some IT professionals at the conference defended decisions to keep users out of the loop, while others said such dishonest dealings could prove tricky.

"It's not like we're hiding anything," said Wendy Saadi, a virtualisation project manager for the city government of Mesa, Arizona. "The application analysts know, and they'll raise objections if they see any problems beforehand," she said. "My users don't care what servers we run their applications on, for the most part, as long as it all works."

However, Saadi noted that an initial effort by a small Mesa IT team to implement virtualisation without notifying users -- or the rest of the IT organisation -- did force a change in direction.

"When we first started, [the small team] watched training videos about how to virtualise everything without asking anyone first," Saadi said. "So they did that, and we were getting a reputation [among users and other Mesa IT managers] as 'that' server group. We put the brakes on everything."

At that point, IT managers created a process for implementing virtual servers, and they prepared white papers and planning documents to keep all IT personnel involved, she said. "We gave lots of opportunities for IT folks to help set standards and procedures" and then started the effort again, Saadi explained.

Now, she said, all of IT is notified of virtualisation projects, and various IT managers represent the needs of specific users -- without necessarily notifying them of the plans. Currently, the city has 32 virtual machines running on two quad-core servers; the plan is to have 90 virtual systems by year's end.

Mike Biagioli, IT manager for Waukesha County, Wisconsin, said that in his case, it's important that users be notified of any virtualisation plans. A "don't ask, don't tell" policy could be a "career-ending move" for a Waukesha County government employee, he said. "If you do that and people find out, they won't trust you on anything else."

Vendor dilemmas

Software vendors are also erecting barriers to efforts to set up virtual computing systems, according to IMW attendees.

Some vendors won't support their software at all if it's run on virtual machines, they said. Those that do support virtualised deployments have widely varied pricing schemes.

"You have to go to each vendor and ask," said Jeff Dill, senior manager of technical architecture services at aircraft parts supplier Aviall Services.

With many vendors, Biagioli noted, "it's case by case. If you have a disaster recovery facility [that's running virtualised software] and it's not live, then that's fine — but if you turn it on, you have to pay."

Waukesha County's IT shop has had to postpone some software upgrades because of virtualisation licensing concerns, according to Biagioli.

David Hodge, manager of computer systems at Systech, a vendor of billing and dispatch software for concrete mixers, is one IT staffer who doesn't tell his vendors and end users about virtualisation projects right away. However, his employer is a software vendor that prohibits users from virtualising its software.

"We're one of those vendors that doesn't allow our customers to do virtualisation, but I'm off in my corner doing it," he acknowledged. "It makes my job easier to just put it out there and then tell [users] later. I eventually do tell them, but just not during the initial period."

Some IT managers said that when they run into an unco-operative vendor, a common tack is to test software on a virtual machine used for development, to get a sense of how much support the application might require.

While staffers undertake that effort, the project's leader might reach out to the virtualisation software supplier for help in convincing application vendors of the benefits of the technology, said IMW attendees.

Whether or not licensing issues can be resolved, it's clear that users are already buying bigger servers to help meet their virtualisation needs. "The sweet spot for hardware configurations has shifted from two-socket to two-socket dual-core or two-socket quad-core" processors, said Gill.

Though the extra processing power comes in mighty handy when consolidating many servers onto one, its price tag could slow virtualisation plans at some IT departments.

Bob Logan, director of enterprise infrastructure services at SAIC, a research and development company in San Diego, noted that the typical server used for virtualisation in his shop costs almost five times as much as an average stand-alone server. "It's around $28,000 vs. $6,000," he said.

But the cost hasn't proven to be a problem for SAIC. Virtualisation has allowed the company to consolidate its data centre by replacing 300 physical servers with 20 servers hosting virtual machines, Logan said. The effort saved $1.2 million in leasing costs over three years, he added.

According to the InfoPro survey, successful implementations like that should become far more common over the next few years.

For example, Gill said that about 28 percent of the respondents said they expect that half of all new servers installed at their companies this year will host virtual applications. And about 50 percent said that, by 2010, at least half of their new servers will likely host virtual software.


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