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Reasons to move business-critical applications to virtual environments

Companies have a natural reluctance to virtualize business-critical applications, but are these fears now unfounded as virtualization has matured?

Many companies are hesitant to virtualize business-critical applications -- and for good reason. These apps are a company's lifeblood. If they go down, there will be real-world consequences. Without a pressing need, many enterprises would prefer to keep those important applications running on existing platforms rather than moving them onto a virtual environment.

In this Q&A, we talked with Michael Webster (VCDX-066 and vExpert), who has more than 10 years' experience working with VMware virtualization products. He leads the Business Critical Applications Practice Team in VMware's Asia Pacific and Japan Center of Excellence. Webster also handles project management, operational readiness and technical architecture consulting as owner of IT Solutions 2000 in New Zealand. Webster explained the steps an enterprise needs to take to ensure a smooth transition when virtualizing business-critical applications.

What constitutes a business-critical app?

Michael Webster: This is quite a wide-ranging definition, but it includes all the key elements of what we actually mean when we're talking about business-critical applications, and it's more than just a database server. It's about the business services and business impacts of those services. It's normally multiple integrated components.

It's any application that would have a material-adverse impact to your business reputation, productivity or financial viability, if [the app] were to become unavailable or experience severe performance degradation for an extended period of time.

Examples might include [the following]:

  • Virtual desktop environments, if they support significant business functions and activities;
  • Enterprise resource planning systems and the supporting databases and middleware;
  • Manufacturing, process automation and control systems such as [supervisory control and data acquisition];
  • Financial systems, payment processing, online banking;
  • Billing systems; [and]
  • Customer-facing online systems, [business-to-business], e-commerce sites.

What motivates customers to virtualize important apps?

Webster: Each customer has different reasons but the common reasons are as follows:

  • Standardization of infrastructure management and operational capability;
  • [Reduced risk and] more predictable Quality of Service;
  • Higher, simpler availability mechanisms as they are built into the base platform;
  • Increased security and simplified and automated compliance;
  • Significantly simplified and automated disaster recovery, including nondisruptive and repeatable and auditable testing;
  • More integrated performance and capacity management to prevent incidents before they occur; [and]
  • More reliable, realistic and valid application testing -- this can save significant testing time and personnel costs on large application projects.

Cost savings [are] important, but it's often not the primary motivation for virtualizing important business-critical apps. Improved Quality of Service and availability, including better performance and greatly simplified [disaster recovery], are often more important and easily achievable in a virtualized environment, at least with VMware vSphere.

Why do businesses shy away from virtualizing mission-critical apps?

Webster: [Enterprises do this] for a couple of common reasons:

  • [Because] existing hardware is not yet due for refresh, or there is no compelling business reason right now, or there are still other low-hanging fruit left to virtualize before the critical apps are on the list. There should always be a compelling business reason to start with.
  • [Because they're] not aware of the capability of modern hypervisor technology to handle the most critical applications.
  • [Because of a lack] of understanding of how virtualizing the applications can be done successfully and without compromising [service-level agreements], as the application owners of business-critical apps aren't normally that familiar with virtualization.
  • Because of [fear, uncertainty and doubt] from the application vendor around support and licensing.
  • Because a particular application is not yet supported by the application vendor in a virtualized environment, which is becoming far less common these days, but there are still some black-box applications not supported in a virtual environment.
  • Because the application requires a specialized hardware device, such as an X.25 card.
  • Because of a perceived lack of operational capability in the virtualization team to be able to manage and operate a critical application.
  • Because of an internal policy that says virtual machines are only a certain size or because the virtualization environment hasn't been upgraded to handle larger VMs.

Have VMware tools and products evolved recently to make it easier -- or harder -- to virtualize these apps?

Webster: VMware's platform has improved greatly over the last couple of years where there are [only a] few applications that are not realistic candidates for virtualization.

However, not all customers have kept their environment up to date to take advantage of the advances in technology. VMware has also been working hard on being able to provide predictable Quality of Service, including for low-latency applications. So advances in the area of low latency [microsecond] has allowed many more latency-sensitive, big-data and HPC [high-performance computing] applications to take advantage of virtualization.

VMware bringing out vCloud Suite Enterprise, [which] includes capabilities aimed at business-critical apps, has also made virtualizing these important apps more straightforward, especially when you include the support available for application plug-ins into the vCenter Operations Management tools that allows complete end-to-end application performance and capacity management.

Moving mission-critical apps

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