Virtualisation: from server and desktop to the network

Virtualisation lies at the heart of the current evolution of IT infrastructure. Server virtualisation has been demonstrated to provide efficiency and to cut costs in the datacentre. Desktop virtualisation is beginning to change the way in which companies deploy services to users. Both have been evolving rapidly as cloud computing continues to advance and as security, management and deployment issues are addressed.

Enterprise storage giant EMC sees an important infrastructure shift in introduction of virtualisation. “Virtualisation now presents an accepted means of deploying x86-based server computing,” says product manager Darren McCullum. “The sheer horsepower in server hardware today makes it completely uneconomical to continue to deploy servers and applications on a one-to-one basis.” EMC provides VMware integrated storage, management, backup, recovery and security.

McCullum sees a range of benefits from deploying virtualisation, among which are:

• Capital cost savings through buying less physical hardware

• Lower operational costs due to less power being required, less physical real estate, less cooling and so on

• A more responsive IT environment. VMs (virtual machines) can be deployed in minutes, whereas a traditional physical server could take weeks to procure, install and commission

• A greater user experience as planned downtime can all but be eliminated from the infrastructure

• Improved disaster recovery and more efficient test and development environments.

“Virtualisation is in the unique position of touching almost all aspects of IT infrastructure – from management, through to backup/recovery, networks, compute, desktop, security and of course, storage,” says McCullum. “To truly get the most value from a virtualisation deployment, organisations should look at their entire IT infrastructure and look to make the changes that best enable virtualisation, and best enable the management and automation of that environment over time. “

If deployed correctly, a virtualised environment stands to be more secure than its traditional physical counterpart. “An example of this is the Data Loss Prevention technology that EMC’s RSA division is pioneering,” says McCullum. “Similar advantages are available with backup. Few organisations can continue to back up data the way they have in the physical world.”

Organisations can benefit from virtualisation as much on the desktop as on the server. In desktop virtualisation with VMware View, for example, value for an organisation comes from greater efficiencies in management, security, availability, control — and potentially a longer lifecycle between desktop device deployments.

“Resellers need to be familiar with the opportunity that virtualisation presents for both themselves and their customers,” says McCullum. “When implementing virtualisation for their customers, resellers should be recommending solutions that integrate with, and extend the capabilities of, their virtualisation solution.“

HP is working with CIOs around New Zealand and around the world to help address issues of IT resource sprawl. “Virtualisation is a key component of HP’s broader strategy for addressing this,” says New Zealand storage and servers business manager Jeff Healey. HP’s strategy is the HP Converged Infrastructure.

“A lot of companies have forayed into virtual machines to introduce efficiency and flexibility, often beginning with a few servers and applications,” says Healey. “Compelling ROI has then led to new ad hoc projects, then more ad hoc projects. Before long, thousands of virtual servers flood the environment. The most important recent development has been a shift from vendors and customers alike, away from this ad hoc approach to introducing virtualised infrastructure towards a more holistic and considered approach to the entire infrastructure.”

Virtualisation can and should have a positive impact on IT infrastructure, if it is implemented as part of a broader infrastructure convergence strategy. But with so much interest in virtual environments, companies can forget that every virtual server must run on a physical system.

“When virtualisation springs up without a master plan, businesses wind up with two sets of tools to manage two separate infrastructures, the physical and the virtual,” says Healey. “Chaos ensues, and the savings of initial virtualisation projects are swallowed up.”

While a growing number of companies deploy server virtualisation to gain operational savings, the cost of networking virtual servers continues to climb. To reap the benefits of their virtualised environment, companies also need to invest in additional networking equipment or use interconnect technology that can allocate bandwidth across network interface card connections.

According to Microsoft’s local technical advisor Stuart Fox, there are three significant, recent developments in virtualisation technology. These are:

• Continued growth of cloud computing and movement toward seamlessly movement of workloads from on-premise to the cloud

• Evolution of desktop virtualisation, providing organisations with more options around deploying desktops

• Hardware-assisted virtualisation, so that the virtual layer can offload more work to hardware, providing greater efficiencies.

“Certainly, desktop virtualisation is opening up new ways of delivering desktops to users,” says Fox. “But what I think we’ll see is a blend of desktop delivery methods in an organisation based on user need rather than a one size fits all mandate from the IT department. What will be crucial for any desktop delivery project is that the environment must be well managed. “

Hardware, networking and storage are all critical components, but management is also critical. It has become so easy to provision virtualised systems that there now must be a real focus on managing the software.

Another issue of importance is security. “Security should be baked-in to every system, instead of an add-on,” says Fox. “The virtual platform needs to be designed for security from the ground up and using a secure development process. Virtualisation does not remove the requirement to provide security services into the virtual guests.”

Citrix has been involved with various areas of desktop virtualisation for the past 20 years, with its own thin client solutions and through recent acquisition of XenSource. “In recent years, there has been a lot more demand from users in flexibility, choice, and self service — as well as more challenges form the IT side,” says area vice president Peter Brockhoff. “IT departments want control, security and lower cost. Market demand is strong for effective solutions. The important thing is to pull together user demands and IT department demands, and deliver to both.”

From a desktop virtualisation perspective, one of the key issues is that different user types have very different requirements. “People are used to having a PC on the desk and this makes them accustomed to a level of performance,” says Brockhoff. “The virtualised solution needs to meet those expectations. Some users have simple requirements, such as just one or two applications. Others may have large requirements involving things like webcams and streaming video. We have solutions that meet these different needs and make it possible to tailor appropriate delivery types.”

In addition to the technology improvement, Brockhoff sees Microsoft’s rollout of Windows 7 as presenting a key opportunity for desktop virtualisation, because it is getting customers to think about desktops and how they are managed and deployed.

Gen-i is involved in implementing virtualisation solutions for its customers. According to ICT services manager Joe Bradley, the most important recent developments include increasing ability to apply virtualisation to diverse end-user environments, and ability to deploy mixed on-premise and cloud-based virtualised environments.

“Virtualisation for desktops is expected to have a significant impact on the market,” says Bradley. “It offers similar benefits to server virtualisation — such as standardisation, lower capital cost, centralised control - with improved methods for handling multiple operating environments and applications.”

AppSense provides IT management solutions focusing upon virtual environments. “As an organisation, we have been around for 14 years,” says ANZ general manager, Sean Walsh. The company began within the Citrix environment, but is now increasingly moving into other markets.

The AppSense management suite is modular software that provides diverse functionality for managing the virtual environment and ensuring the same look and feel on desktops no matter where they are accessed. AppSense provides mobile personalisation, as well as related technology such as security and licence management.

“Desktop virtualisation helps to reduce costs, while providing flexibility, and securing information,” says Walsh. “We bring user management. Frequently, companies haven’t thought of how to provision virtual desktops from a centralised environment. We can help with this and can also aid in areas such as rollout of Windows 7. Most companies will adopt a hybrid desktop model, with some physical and some virtual. We bring user management to all platforms, with centralised console management.”

Maxnet is a provider of business server hosting and connectivity solutions, and views virtualisation as an important part of the business. “Virtualisation enables service providers to better meet the needs of an increasingly mobile workforce that expects to be able to access their required applications and services anytime and anywhere at low cost,” says enterprise architect Jeremy Nees.

The first wave of virtualisation was based on cutting costs, consolidation of server environments and increased management efficiency. Another outcome was simplification of moving server workloads at the backend from one platform to another. This provides many potential benefits, though only a few have so far been realised.

The virtualisation concept is now being taken a step further. “Administrators are looking to migrate virtual machines across datacentres to cut running costs even further,” says Nees.

“For instance, compute demand could be moved according to where the cheapest power is available at a given period of time. So the second wave of virtualisation is about offering this kind of cost-saving, backend mobility without jeopardising the user’s quality of service. It offers service providers the ability to connect an increasingly mobile workforce to applications and services regardless of where the application or service resides or to where it may be moved.”

The next big step is network virtualisation, which will result in convergence of the network stack. “This will let different elements of the network be delivered down the same 10gbps Ethernet,” says Nees.

“This greatly simplifies administration of the network, and allows far greater automation which is required to deliver all that a cloud computing platform promises to offer. It enables end-to-end virtualisation, where all parts of the solution are virtualised, including load balancing, security and storage. So, no matter where any given pool of virtualised servers are migrated, the entire supporting network goes with them to ensure end users are still able to connect to the service that is being delivered from the virtual servers.”

An industry working party is also coordinating a common standard for virtualisation technologies, which will play an important part in ensuring the mobility of virtualised services across various virtualisation platforms. This should make it possible to migrate virtualised services at will from private clouds to public clouds, and from a VMware platform to Xen platform.

“We’ve built a ‘2N’ datacentre infrastructure, which basically means everything in the datacentre is duplicated so we can guarantee 99.99 percent uptime,” says Nees.

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