Will Virtualization Deliver as an Enabling Technology?

Tuesday Feb 10th 2009 by Jeff Vance
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Despite the hype, a number of mundane issues need to be worked out before virtualization can reach its true potential.

While virtualization is clearly one of the bright spots for IT during the recession, it’s getting perilously close to being overhyped. Vendors have moved beyond servers and are pitching virtualization as an enabling tool for everything from thin computing to cloud computing to SaaS. Yet as any good salesperson knows, what you want to do to ensure customer satisfaction is under-promise and over-deliver.

Are virtualization vendors guilty of doing the opposite?

I posed this question to David Mitchell Smith, a VP and Fellow at the research firm Gartner. “I think part of the problem is simple semantics,” Smith said. “No two people using the term ‘cloud’ mean the same thing. Is it an internal cloud, which virtualization vendors are capitalizing on? Or is it the public cloud, which isn’t at all dependent on virtualization?”

Smith argues that virtualization vendors are much better at typical enterprise IT – internal clouds – than with public clouds. In fact, most public clouds aren’t even using virtualization today. “If you ask Salesforce.com if they plan to adopt virtualization, they’ll say ‘no.’ They built out their infrastructure before virtualization came along, and they aren’t going to change it,” Smith said.

According to with Bob Waldie, CEO of Opengear, the typical enterprise is worried about much more mundane things than creating new computing models. “Our experience is that most organizations aren’t planning for virtualization as part of a cloud or SaaS vision,” he said.

Opengear, an infrastructure management provider, works with its customers to manage virtualization in multi-vendor environments. “The driver is still cost,” Waldie said. “Virtualization is a great cost management tool. With server consolidation, you manage more than server costs. You maximize floor space and power consumption. You limit the need for air conditioning. These are things a business can quantify.”

It’s much harder to quantify the benefits of switching to cloud computing or SaaS.

Where Are All These Cloud Anyway?

Citrix believes that it has the answer. While Citrix doesn’t generate the press of a VMware or Microsoft, the company has been quietly building up its virtualization arsenal. With the acquisition of XenWorks, they should be considered a serious player. “You won’t find VMware in the cloud,” argued Simon Crosby, CTO of the Citrix virtualization and management division. “You will find us. The whole notion of cloud computing is being driven by Xen.”

That may be an overstatement, but Crosby has a point. A major cloud computing success story, Amazon Web Services, built out its offering on Xen. If virtualization is to serve as an enabling technology, it has to start somewhere, and that start is a success story for Citrix.

“Primarily what Amazon is offering is lower-level things like EC2 [Elastic Compute Cloud] and S3 [Simple Storage Service], which for all intents and purposes are really just virtualization,” Gartner’s Smith said. “They [Amazon] are the example of virtualization in the cloud. Others are not.”

However, Crosby was cautious about over-hyping the reality. “Today, most of the applications going up into big public clouds are pretty stateless. They’re Web front-ends and what have you. Enterprise applications aren’t there yet,” he said.

For now, concerns about security, business continuity and regulatory compliance are big roadblocks for the enterprise – which points us back towards internal clouds.

Turning Back Inside

Within the enterprise, Citrix – and a slew of other virtualization vendors – is honing in not on internal clouds, per se, but on the specific use case of desktop virtualization coupled with application delivery.

Here, the recession is enabling this trend every bit as much as the technologies involved. With more outsourcing, with a workforce in transition, with branch offices shut down and more employees telecommuting as a result, desktops loom as an IT nightmare. Indeed, they already are one. Application delivery is an issue, performance and stability another, and security is probably the biggest headache of all.

“Our philosophy is this: the user’s desktop can never be trusted,” Crosby said. “So, we put a hypervisor on the client, which allows us to provide clear lines of security and resource separation between different virtual machines running on the client.”

With this model, IT is in control. No more relying on end user’s for updates. No more errors introduced by users into applications. No worrying about introduced vulnerabilities. No more time wasted on interoperability.

Back to Reality

Still, if virtualization is to live up to the label of “enabling technology,” it must exist beyond the confines of closed enterprise networks. And to do that, more innovation is needed.

“If you’re a developer who wants to build real cloud applications, you’re not going to find many tools to help you – tools that have been tested and you know that you can rely on,” Smith said. There are things out there from small vendors and startups, but they haven’t been widely tested. Meanwhile, the big vendors like Google only have things in beta.

The proven developer tools tend to be specialized, such as those from Salesforce.com or Microsoft CRM. General purpose tools, on the other hand, are lacking.

“Writing applications for the cloud requires a very large investment from what I like to call ‘rocket scientists,’” Smith said. In other words, if you’re a normal developer, with deadlines and more mundane tasks staring you in the face, writing for the cloud is a project you’d be crazy to tackle.

As virtualization matures, especially if VMware continues to rule the space, another problem emerges: interoperability.

“If you’re content being an all-VMware shop, great,” Waldie of Opengear said. “But you can’t move things around easily, and if you want to support legacy gear or move to Xen or some other platform, you’re in trouble.”

From Plumbing to Behavior

Waldie also pointed to basic plumbing as something virtualization vendors need to consider before they start worrying about cloud computing. One of the biggest benefits already being realized through virtualization concerns power use: Consolidated servers consume less energy.

What they don’t do well, though, is manage power. As more resources reside on fewer servers, power management emerges as a complication few have planned for.

If for some reason, the batteries on your backup power supply are going down, most network UPS’s will shut down servers that aren’t mission-critical. That’s with single-purpose servers. “What they can’t do is handle a server with a bunch of virtual servers on them,” Waldie said. “We haven’t reached the stage of maturity where we can even manage a power outage with virtualized infrastructure.”

There goes the business continuity plan.

According to Simon Crosby of Citrix, these lower-level concerns will work themselves out. They’ll need to be addressed, certainly, but they aren’t show stoppers. He argues that a bigger issue to consider is how new virtualization will force IT to reorganize itself.

“When technology dramatically collides with human culture, that’s when the sparks fly,” he said.

For example, storage professionals will resist virtualization, claiming that it violates best practices for security and compliance. “Virtualization will continue to challenge people’s roles and existing practices. The organizational needs are not fully known. This is the battle for today’s CIO,” Crosby argued. “Virtualization is not an instant panacea. In fact, in many ways adoption is quite painful.”

Crosby doesn’t see this as a bad thing. A more thoughtful approach to virtualization combined with tight budgets may translate into a slower adoption rate in the short term. The long-term result, though, could very well be a more nimble, agile, manageable and sensible IT infrastructure.

As for clouds, SaaS and the like, these things are already happening, of course. But until more mundane issues are addressed, they’ll be islands in a sea of status-quo computing.

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