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With more organisations making the transition to virtual computing it is time to understand the basis for successful implementation of these solutions. Pallavi Sharma dives in to discover the challenges and benefits associated with this technology and its future in IT.

In an environment characterised by a large mobile workforce generating huge volumes of data across multiple channels of business, organisations are making massive investments in virtual computing and consolidation of their data centres to achieve operational efficiencies and reduce costs.

Over the last year, the concept of virtualisation has gone from being an IT buzzword to an IT reality. Gartner predicts that 48% of all installed applications in an organisation will be on virtual machines by 2012. The analyst firm also predicts that other forms of virtualisation such as desktop virtualisation will take the IT world by storm. In fact, Gartner believes that within the next two years more than 40% of all desktops in larger enterprises will be virtualised.

Chris Moore, GM for the MEA at Trend Micro says, “The Middle East is experiencing the next stage in virtualisation, with organisations investing in moving their mission critical applications onto a virtualised platform because they have witnessed the tangible benefits arising from virtualising their non-critical business applications”

Given the notable benefits of investing in virtualisation, this transition seems natural for most organisations. “There is tremendous scope for virtualisation in the Middle East, as elsewhere, because of the potential benefits.

The most significant benefit of virtualisation is enhanced business flexibility and agility. Namely the time it takes for a business to provision new services in response to market trends has been dramatically reduced from weeks to hours,” elaborates Lewis Honour, director of security at Intergence Systems.

Deepak Narain, manager of systems engineers MENA at VMWare believes that virtualisation brings multiple benefits
including reduced power consumption, increased collaboration and information sharing across business operations, better management and greater control due to the establishment of a centralised architecture and consolidation.

“The ease of movement across data centres reduces the time to troubleshoot any problems or errors, while allowing rightsizing of the infrastructure and ensuring satisfactory end-to-end business serviced performance, this in turn accelerates VDI acceptance and ROI,” adds Narain.

Agress Sven Denecken, VP of coinnovation at SAP, “Every single one of the organisations that have invested in virtualisation solutions have derived rapid ROI in addition to which they have benefitted from reduced computing and infrastructure costs while enabling IT departments in these organisations to focus on more intensive back end infrastructure requirements and IT strategies. Ultimately, virtualisation helps transform OPEX to CAPEX.”

Great divide

Surprising as it may sound, many organisations in the Middle East remain apprehensive about investing in this technology. Moore feels that this is more due to user psychology and resistance to the steep learning curve associated with virtualisation than anything to do with the technology itself.

He says, “Learning and moving to the next stage in virtualisation is witnessing a little resistance at this point. This may be because of what organisations have learnt along the way and what they still need to learn. In essence, the ongoing skills gap in the region and the lack of a clear blueprint makes the road to adopting these technologies slightly foggy”

Tarek Abbas, systems engineering director, MENA at Juniper Networks, agrees. “General user resistance to virtualisation is associated with operator and general public attitudes, who are used to dealing with physical rather than virtual entities. Psychological barriers are much harder to deal with and can only be handled through effective communication and education of an organisation’s employees. As such user resistance has more to do with corporate culture than virtualisation technology,” he says.

Organisations in the Middle East also often feel virtualisation technology offers innumerable opportunities for security
loopholes, since the nature of the virtual computing involves integrating the physical and virtual world and offers little room for monitoring data traffic across multiple channels.

“Virtualisation results in a lack of visibility and control over traffic passing between virtual machines (VMs) on the same server. As a result, malicious traffic can propagate unchecked between VMs and potentially onto the physical data centre network. Similarly, by creating highly distributed communication patterns with multiple flows per transaction, distributed applications pose a variety of security risks as well as making it difficult to enforce access entitlements and data privacy,” explains Abbas.

“Virtualisation creates a ‘high-density’ (lots of servers and storage in one place) and ‘dynamic’ environment (workloads can be moved around to take advantage of available IT resources). These characteristics create new challenges for managing security, backup, storage, and endpoint virtualisation. Virtualisation also increases complexity because organisations must now manage both physical and virtual infrastructure,” points out Anthony Harrison, solution architect for Symantec.

Moore accounts two more factors for being responsible for user inertia to adopting virtualisation. “Because effective virtualisation requires centralisation of networks and enables greater control over an organisation’s networks, user resistance may be due to the fact the employees do not like the idea of being controlled. Add to this the fact, due
to the economic decline organisations have had to deal with significant budget cuts and virtualisation requires massive investments in storage because once virtualisation becomes prevalent in a business the number of servers although virtualised in fact grows due to the ease at which new servers can be provisioned. This is another reason why organisations ponder on making investments in virtual computing.”

Harrison agrees with the latter, “Organisations are concerned about overall cost of their virtualisation investments and one of the promises of server virtualisation is to drive down overall IT costs. Decision makers are concerned that the money they save through server consolidation can be lost due to increased storage costs and OPEX management costs.”.

Harrison adds, “In the rush to virtualisation, the ease of deployment has sometimes led people to ignore some or all of the other factors involved with managing and operating a server environment. In response to user demands for new systems to be provisioned, the maturity of virtual platforms has resulted in them being the default choice with the ability to deploy in hours or minutes instead of weeks or even months. However, this explosion of capability brings an equal management responsibility to the physical one; you still need to monitor, manage, secure, patch and maintain all of your systems whether physical or not.”

Besides this, multiple end-users who participated in multiple CIO roundtables conducted by CNME have highlighted that they remain wary of virtualisation due to the lack of trained personnel who understand virtualised environment, and due to the lack of applications that can run effectively in these environments. In the roundtables, these end-users asked for vendors to increase training options for IT personnel (and make them more cost-effective) and also urged them to work on more applications that could run without performance drops in virtualised environments.

Surging ahead

The challenges that face virtualisation are many and abundant in the region. However, the benefits associated with virtualisation can yet be reaped if the right resources and infrastructure are put in place before embarking on a virtualisation project.

Honour explains, “Capacity planning is a major factor for project success. A significant majority of failed virtualisation projects can be attributed to insufficient capacity planning of computing, storage and networking resources prior to the commencement of any virtualisation exercise. Initially the symptoms of the lack of capacity planning will be
negligible. However, as the virtual machines are migrated around the infrastructure or the virtual estate grows the symptoms will readily become more prevalent.”

Honour is of the opinion that while remedial action could include purchasing more network bandwidth or bigger servers, it would be more effective to wipe the slate clean and start from scratch.

According to Moore, organisations need to put significant thought into what applications they want to place on a virtual platform, “We recommend that an organisation take the applications used by the largest population in the organisation, like email for instance and place them along tiers to enhance deployment and ultimately gain on quicker ROI . Of course, Trend Micro also ensures that their customers address and design an appropriate content security solution without which a virtualisation project will not complete.”

The question also arises, does the infrastructure requirements for a successful virtualisation drive vary across industries? Honour believes that the infrastructure requirements can be split into three components when considering virtualisation – computing, storage and networking. “In all industries the computing requirement will remain largely the same. However, the storage and WAN requirements will vary depending upon the industry in question. For example, in regulated industries or ones with a need for high availability of services, there will be dramatically higher bandwidth requirements as VM images and virtual storage file systems are shunted between data centres.”

Harrison states, “It’s not the infrastructure so much as the applications that determine what is virtualised first. Companies with mission-critical, transactional applications tend to keep these on physical servers, and give attention to virtualising non-critical environments first.”

Moore believes that only entrepreneurship can speed things up, “I think it is education and professional approach to planning a virtualisation project. Vendors can try and make all this available till they’re blue in the face but until organisations wanting to utilise these services can get the experts in their departments to learn and understand, the environment won’t change.”

Harrison says, “Vendors need to provide software that supports heterogenous environments, particularly for SMEs who are excessively adopting these technologies but don’t have the staffing expertise of larger enterprises.

Besides this, the regulatory bodies need to focus on fostering an environment that is pro virtualisation by placing certain industry specific regulations such as security and privacy laws.

Virtualisation will be beneficial but only if it is understood that virtualisation will not happen in isolation and that it must seamlessly integrate into the existing infrastructure and organisation culture while being managed by the right people.

One thing is for certain, there is no stopping this technology from surging ahead. As virtualisation becomes inevitable, enterprise would be better off to learn and optimise the technology for their situations, or face the real threat of being left behind.

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