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How vSphere, Intel servers, and integration tools create a 'triple threat'

VSphere, Intel hardware and integration tools can make a 100% virtualized data center closer to reality. But concerns about virtualization security, software support and ROI could hinder adoption.

Steve Kaplan, Contributor
Recently, VMware announced performance enhancements to its virtualization management suite vSphere that the company says enable a "100% virtualized internal cloud." And according to virtualization observers, vSphere -- together with the new Intel 5500 Series processor and third-party manufacturer integration for both platforms -- enables the performance and the reliability, management and security requirements to establish virtualization as the standard and the foundation of a 100% virtualized data center.

But enthusiasm aside, VMware and its proponents must accept that hurdles to server virtualization adoption remain, and on its own, the revolutionary technology is not enough to persuade the unconverted. IT leadership must first dispel skepticism about ROI benefits, address the potential lack of software manufacturer support, resolve network-related security concerns and overcome an inherent IT resistance to change.

Here we discuss some of the lingering concerns about virtualization adoption and how combining vSphere with Intel's hardware and third-party integration tools may be the 'triple threat' of sorts for private clouds and a 100% virtualized data center.

How vSphere and the Intel Xeon 5500 series servers can increase virtualization ROI
Virtualization is now part of the data center fabric for most organizations but is often limited to the "low-hanging fruit" such as test and development and nonmission-critical production servers. When IT managers assume a diminished ROI and increased risks associated with virtualizing resource-intensive or mission-critical servers, virtualization deployments can stall despite the investment already made in software licensing, storage area network (SAN) storage and IT staff training.

VMware vSphere and the Intel 5500 Series provide the technology foundation for disrupting the accepted economics paradigm. On the hardware side, Intel says that its 5500 series is its most revolutionary server processor since the Pentium Pro, which debuted 15 years ago. Designed to optimize virtualization performance, the 5500 also serves as a platform for third-party manufacturers to add further enhancements. Cisco's extended memory technology for its Unified Computing System (UCS), for example, enables more than twice the memory per 2-CPU server blade – which translates into a denser ratio of virtual machines (VMs) per host.

On the software side, vSphere's development is the result of more than 3 million engineering hours by more than 1,000 engineers and provides standout compute and storage performance characteristics, along with APIs enabling hypervisor-level enhancements by leading network, storage and security manufacturers.

Consider this example of vSphere performance. Running vSphere on the Intel 5500 series enables even the largest online transaction processing (OLTP) applications and databases to set performance records as virtual machines. Virtualization allows applications to overcome the challenge of fully using today's multicore-server resources. Applications are hosted as multiple virtual machines with fewer compute resources assigned to each, which enables them to scale linearly with the underlying server resources and, in aggregate, outperform their physical counterparts.

VSphere's Fault Tolerance capability enables real-time failover of mission-critical servers without requiring the expense of redundant hardware and clustering software. Its vNetwork Distributed Switch brings management of a virtual network to network administrators and allows application of VMotion-aware security and network policies. The Cisco Nexus 1000V virtual switch enables managing the physical and virtual networks with the same Cisco command line tool sets.

By knocking down the technical barriers to a completely virtualized data center, vSphere and the Intel 5500 enable a marginal ROI that can be even more significant than the ROI achieved with the initial virtualization deployment. More VMs can be hosted per CPU, along with the ability to simply scale up the existing virtual infrastructure in terms of storage, licensing and IT staff training and expertise. Savings often reflect a payback period on the investment of less than a year.

Addressing manufacturer support
Most major software manufacturers now certify their products on VMware. Microsoft goes a step further and makes it economically rewarding to virtualize Windows Server and SQL Server Enterprise by requiring licensing of only the virtualization host CPUs. Oracle Corp. is a glaring exception, as the company recently withdrew its implied support for its applications on non-Oracle virtualization platforms following the announcement of its Virtual Iron Software acquisition. Some smaller industry niche players also do not support their software as virtual machines, even though they often utilize VMware internally in the development process. What is an organization set on 100% virtualization to do? There are four options:

  1. Virtualize anyway, and don't tell the manufacturer. While this approach may not sound kosher, it is common since unsupported applications inevitably run well as virtual machines. In the unlikely worst case, an organization can always solve a support issue by converting the VM back to a physical machine.

  2. Virtualize anyway and tell the manufacturer that it better provide support or count on one less customer. This approach can be surprisingly effective, though substantial purchasing power may be required to pull it off.

  3. Keep a physical instance of the server, but use third-party technology to continuously snap copies into a virtual machine. This approach continues to provide the benefits of virtualization beyond hardware consolidation including the ability to fail-over to the virtual instance, to perform testing on the virtual copy, and to replicate the virtual instance off site for disaster recovery.

  4. Leave the application physical and don't include it in the ROI results. While less satisfying than 100% virtualization, this is certainly a much better strategy than letting an uncooperative software manufacturer delay virtualization of the majority of servers.

Deconstructing network security concerns
The lack of network security capabilities with ESX and all other hypervisors has been a barrier to 100% virtualization. Network administrators are justifiably concerned by their lack of knowledge about and control of virtual environments where they only have visibility up to the host level. In larger organizations, the virtual switches are typically treated as part of the server environment and configured without regard to network and security policies – most of which would be rendered ineffective by using VMotion in any case.

VSphere's vNetwork Distributed Switch turns back configuration of the virtual switch to the network administrators who can now apply security and networking policies that are VMotion-aware. Security and compliance are put on equal footing with a physical environment by enabling audit configuration, maintenance and execution at the VM-level granularity. The VMsafe API enables security manufacturers to develop products geared toward protection and monitoring of individual VMs without requiring individual agents, and without forcing traffic through the network to physical hardware appliances.

Embracing a 100% virtualized data center
The triple threat of vSphere, the Intel 5500 and integrated third-party manufacturer innovations present an unparalleled opportunity for a data center revolution. IT professionals are naturally resistant to change, particularly when it comes to transformational infrastructure technology. But VMware virtualization has proven its mettle. Redmond Magazine, "the Independent Voice of the Microsoft IT Community," gave its 2008 Editors Choice Award for the most reliable IT technology to VMware, with the IBM mainframe coming in second place. For data centers, housing only physical assets is now the more risky alternative. A 100% physical data center environment creates much higher IT staffing demands, the probability of server downtime and difficulties when trying to quickly recover following a disaster. The risk becomes still more visible in organizations where IT staff already has virtualization experience but must support both physical and virtual architectures.

Embracing 100% data center virtualization can only happen with visionary IT leadership. The resulting organizational rewards are substantial as the physical data center model shifts to a higher-performing and more flexible internal cloud. The IT staff can spend time on projects that enable a more efficient and effective organization rather than on babysitting physical servers.

Disclaimer: This article expresses the views of the author and is not endorsed by INX or the manufacturers mentioned.

Steve Kaplan is the vice president of the Data Center Virtualization Practice at INX. Kaplan can be reached at steve.kaplan@inxi.com. You can also follow Steve on Twitter.

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