Hardware Today: Server Virtualization Becoming Norm

By Drew Robb (Send Email)
Posted Oct 23, 2006

Server virtualization no longer has the same cache it did a year or two ago. And the reason is simple: Now that everybody is starting to do it, there is nothing to boast about. According to IDC, more than three-quarters of companies with 500 or more employees use virtual servers, and 45 percent of all new servers purchased this year will be virtualized.

As server virtualization becomes expected rather than the exception, how are hardware vendors incorporating virtualization into their businesses?

Thus, server virtualization is fast becoming a popular data center management option, no doubt because it delivers higher utilization and enables easier server consolidation.

"Server virtualization continues to be a dominant force in the x86 market," says Gartner analyst John Enck. "Customers use virtualization to drive server consolidation, disaster recovery and IT optimization projects."

VMware Rolls On

VMware, now owned by EMC Corp of Hopkinton, Mass., was the company that got virtual machine (VM) technology going on the Windows platform and continues to reign as market leader in the x86 virtualization space.

"VMware ESX continues to dominate the market for in-production implementations of virtualization," says Enck.

Despite (or perhaps because of) the EMC merger, sales continue to be brisk.

"When EMC closed the VMware acquisition in January 2004, VMware's revenue for the prior year was approximately $100M," says Tom Heiser, EMC senior vice president of corporate development and new ventures. "Based on our current run rate, 2006 revenue for VMware will have increased six fold since EMC acquired it."

EMC's deep pockets haven't hurt VMware's innovation either. The list of VMware components just keeps getting longer. VMware VirtualCenter, for example, rapidly provisions VMs and monitors the performance of those VMs as well as physical servers. It optimizes resources, ensures high availability to all applications and adds virtualization-based distributed services.

One such service is VMware VMotion. It leverages the virtualization of servers, storage and networking to move an entire running VM instantaneously from one server to another.

Another element that works hand in hand with VirtualCenter is Distributed Resource Scheduler (DRS). It automatically balances the workload between pools of virtual servers, enabling servers to operate at 80 percent or greater utilization. Once policies are established, DRS manages performance, automatically provisions virtual servers, balances loads and activates fail-over without administrator action.

"The more that companies use virtualization in production, the more that DRS will be used to manage resource allocation of virtual machines" says Stephen Elliot, an analyst for IDC of Framingham, Mass.

Initially, VMware focused on creating a tool that would allow resources to be dynamically shared across multiple virtual machines on a single physical server, with an eventual goal of managing the entire virtual infrastructure.

"When we released VirtualCenter with VMotion, we added a key missing piece — the ability to non-disruptively move workloads between physical machines," says Karthik Rau, VMware's senior director of infrastructure products & solutions. "With these added capabilities, the team focused on building a true distributed resource manager for VMware virtual infrastructure, and that turned into VMware DRS."

Using DRS, a manager can group all of the physical servers into a single resource pool and establish policies extending across them. For example, the Finance Department might be allocated a 20 percent share of the resource pool. If the company has 10 servers running under DRS, the Finance Department would get the equivalent of two physical servers, although the work would actually be performed on virtual machines running on any of the 10 physical servers. If a physical server was brought down for maintenance, or a new box added to the server pool, DRS expands or contracts Finance's resources accordingly to keep it at 20 percent of the resource pool. Or, as an alternative, if a department was releasing a new product, it could be assigned a higher percentage of the server resources during the release period, without touching any of the underlying hardware or software.

"For the last 25 years, IT managers have been forced to view their infrastructure as many individual silos of computing power, each capable of running only a single application or a piece of an application," says Rau. "VMware DRS changes for the better how people think of their system infrastructure."

Beyond VMware

VMware is far from the only show in town. Most of the large server OEMs have come out with their own virtualization features. Dell for example, sees virtualization moving from being a discrete technology to a complete solution that is positioned, bundled and sold with systems.

"Customer usage models or cases in virtualization are moving from a consolidation only situation to more of an ease-of-management and ease-of-provisioning scenario," says Stori Waugh, senior manager of PowerEdge Servers, Dell Product Group. "Another area we're seeing growth in virtualization is in the management ecosystem. Whereas before there were numerous tools in the management space for hardware, software, etc., customers are now incorporating virtualization to consolidate the number of tools they need to manage their infrastructures."

Dell's quad-socket dual-core Xeon PowerEdge 6800 and 6850 servers, for example, contain such virtualization features. According to Waugh, virtualization boosts overall performance while reducing server room power consumption.

HP, meanwhile, has beefed up the virtualization capabilities of its Integrity server line.

"HP Integrity VM allows people to run up to 20 copies of an OS on a single processor core," says Frances Guida, manager of HP virtualization. "It enables customers to share server resources among multiple applications, as most apps only need a small fraction of the power."

HP offers this technology as an optional upgrade to server sales. An Integrity VM license costs $1,708 per core.

Other vendors are also getting in on the act. Microsoft now supports Linux clients on Windows Virtual Server 2005. Intel and AMD have incorporated virtualization into their chip architectures, reducing the amount of work the virtualization software requires.

Even backup and storage vendors are releasing products designed for virtual environments. Vizioncore of Buffalo Grove, Ill. offers esxRanger Professional 2.0. It provides image-level and file-level recovery for VMware Infrastructure 3. A differential backup engine identifies and stores only the sections of the VM that have changed from the preceding full backup. Smaller differential files can therefore travel over LANs and WANs faster to remote locations and require less storage space. esxRanger Professional costs $499 per physical (socket) CPU.

"esxRanger Professional is VMotion-aware to follow the image from host to host as the administrator moves the virtual machines for better performance," says Azeem Mohamed, senior director of marketing and products at Vizioncore. "A differential backup engine identifies and stores only the sections of the virtual machine that have changed from the preceding full backup."

File virtualization is another storage application of such technology. It addresses a key end-user problem — the proliferation of NAS boxes and file servers. Attune Systems of Santa Clara, Calif., calls NAS virtualization by the term network file management (NFM). Its Maestro File Manager FM5500 is an appliance designed to reduce the complexity and cost of managing file server and NAS resources. It has a list price of $44,995. The Maestro File Manager virtualizes both files and shares across a wide range of vendors and protocols.

"IT administrators are continuously looking for ways to manage their file servers while adding capacity and migrating data," says Alan Kessler, CEO of Attune Systems. "The Maestro File Manager virtualizes both files and shares across heterogeneous vendors and protocols."

Virtually No Sales?

Although server virtualization means being able to create a lot more virtual servers than physical servers, the very vendors that have embraced the technology may eventually come to regret their enthusiasm. After all, if customers can get more mileage out of existing server resources, what's the hurry to buy more hardware?

"We see server virtualization weighing down new server hardware sales," says Enck. "Because the ROI on virtualization is the avoidance of future spending (meaning, organizations have to buy fewer physical servers after implementing virtualization), we do see an impact on server sales."

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