Breaking Through the Virtual Glass Ceiling
'Virtualization…all the cool, smart kids are doing it!'
Jan. 17, 2011 06:00 AM
"Virtualization...all the cool, smart kids are doing it!" Or at least that is the message being pushed by the virtualization vendors. Mostly this is a true statement. There are plenty of market studies that show that more than three quarters of medium to large enterprises are leveraging server virtualization technologies of some kind. What is not evident in that statement is that for most enterprises, their overall use of the technology is not as widespread as is implied by the statement. For many organizations, virtualization utilization is in its infancy (from a maturity of use perspective) or not a material percentage of the overall IT infrastructure.
Even with the exponential growth of virtualization usage over the last few years, the majority of applications have been based on simple consolidation ROI and used primarily in areas of low risk (IT assets, or test-development environments). Recently the term "VM Stall" has been thrown out along with some research that identifies some of the top reasons why organizations have initially deployed virtualization at a high rate but then significantly slowed that pace down - a virtual "glass ceiling" built on a number of common factors. The good news is that all of these concerns are addressable, and organizations can continue deploying virtualization and reap not only the simple consolidation ROI, but also start moving toward the operational efficiencies promised by utility or cloud computing. The following sections will outline some of the most common areas of concern and provide some guidance on how organizations can break through that ceiling and achieve their virtualization goals.
Cloud computing (or the vendors pushing it) must take some responsibility for putting the brakes on virtualization deployments. For over a year now, VMware has transitioned their marketing towards "cloud." Every ecosystem software vendor has followed suit with some angle on how their software enables cloud. The problem is that companies that are not sophisticated virtualization users are getting confusing and sometimes conflicting messages not just about what cloud is, but how it can be used. The result of this is that some CIOs are pausing and looking at their virtualization efforts and then attempting to reconcile cloud. Do I even need cloud? When? Do my current virtualization plans conflict with or complement a cloud future? These are all valid questions that unfortunately end with answers like, "It depends." This in itself is not a bad idea, but because of the mixed messages around cloud, making an informed decision can be complicated. My suggestion for organizations that are stuck in cloud confusion: Move forward and keep virtualizing! There are enough benefits to virtualization technologies that warrant moving forward, and based on the road maps of the major hypervisor vendors, the ability to leverage cloud from existing virtualization deployments will be a key feature of each vendor's solution.
Another key issue that prevents some applications from being deployed in virtual environments revolves around security and compliance. Applications such as health care and financial transactions that fall under regulatory control of HIPAA or PCI have been the ones most impacted by these concerns. Partially this is due to a lack of specific requirements (in the case of HIPAA) or ambiguous language (PCI DSS) in the documentation. The PCI Council has addressed the virtualization concerns in their latest release of the DSS  and in its accompanying guidance document, which specifically clarifies that use of virtualization is not specifically excluded from PCI environments. There is also concern over virtualization being "different." Though it's true that virtualization is a new layer in the IT stack, all of the traditional security domains apply. Actions like Access Control, Network Inspection, Segmentation, and Separation of Duty are all required in the virtual datacenter. For some items, existing security measures and software will suffice. In addition, as virtualization has matured, the hypervisor vendors as well as the ecosystem have begun to offer solutions to address these areas with specific attention to the virtual domain. Though virtualization is somewhat different, it's not new security practices that need to be performed, it's new approaches to the same practices that may require virtualization-specific software and staff knowledgeable enough in both virtualization and the security domains to be able to apply the security concepts appropriately.
The staffing issue is next in the list of concerns that slow down adoption. It's not just in the security area that a specific virtualization skill set is needed. For many enterprises, virtualization knowledge is held within a small team. This team is independent of the other traditional data center groups of infrastructure, security, storage and software applications. But virtualization is unique in that the domain crosses all of those groups. The typical scenario is that even though an enterprise has been successfully growing the virtual environment (in both size and sophistication), the team may not be keeping pace. At some point the team will start to lose their ability to manage the environment to its fullest, which can manifest itself in a non-performing environment or a reluctance of the team to take on more applications; both slowing and stopping growth. A solution to preventing the situation is first to fully accept that successful virtualization requires a much greater cooperation between what were traditionally siloed technology groups. Something that is easier said than done, but an absolute necessity. This allows for shared responsibility and distribution of the management of portions of the virtual domain to groups better positioned to own these technologies. This will cause a trend toward the virtualization team becoming more architects and conductors of the virtual environment, while the day-to-day management is broken down into the sub-domain experts.
In addition to a shift in the datacenter management staff strategy, it's also important to leverage management tools that enable the cross-domain approach. The virtualization ecosystem is filled with software solutions tailored to specific problems or tasks. If there is no alternative, IT departments must purchase some very specific point solutions to solve problems. The downside to point solutions is that in quantity they become very cumbersome to manage. There can be a long learning curve for each product and the combined costs may also reach a point where the operational costs cut too deeply into the expected returns of virtualization. The large software vendors and some forward-thinking smaller vendors are aware of this issue. While large vendors are buying up the smaller point solutions to integrate into their management portfolio, small vendors are busy building virtualization-specific, cross domain management tools. Both approaches are valid as there are many knobs and dials in virtual management, and it's highly likely that different staff in very different roles will need to access the same controls and information. The choice is to buy different tools for each group, thus driving up operating expense, or deploying software designed for the virtual datacenter that provides both the consolidated management and domain-specific controls and views. When choosing the tools, look for real integration of the tool sets in both user interface and reporting. The power of such tools is the ability to leverage data across multiple control planes through a common interface.
There is strong evidence that enterprises reach a level of virtualization deployment that causes the process to slow down, and that cloud confusion, security and compliance, enterprise/staff maturity, and manageability are top on many CIO's minds. Virtualization and cloud computing are a paradigm shift. With that shift lies the commonality in all of the suggestions above, a change in approach and thinking for how datacenters are managed, that will enable organizations break through the virtualization glass ceiling.