Server virtualization growing in data centers

Data center managers have adopted server virtualization wholeheartedly in the past year, across a variety of businesses for nearly every kind of application, as a way to reduce oversight and hardware costs, IT managers and analysts said at Infrastructure Management World held this week in the US.

Six IT managers at the conference said in interviews that there is no downside to server virtualization, adding that the trend is firmly implanted in their IT shops. Also, more than half of the 400 attendees at the conference said in a computer-based survey that they are already deploying server virtualization in their shops or plan to do so. Research firm IDC is also tracking tremendous annual growth in the technology.

With virtualization spreading, some managers also said they are willing to consider open-source virtualization options to cut down on costs. But others were more skeptical of that idea.

All six users interviewed by Computerworld said they are using commercial virtualization software from VMware, although some are testing open-source software obtained through XenSource.

"We see virtualization as a trend that's not going away," said Lee Congdon, vice president of corporate technology at Capital One Financial. Capitol One is midway into a three-year plan to add virtualization software to Windows-based servers, a move that will reduce the number of servers at the company from 1,600 to 1,100, he said.

There have already been "substantial" cost savings arising from the transition, but Congdon would not provide details.

Generally, IT managers said they don't need as many server administrators -- or as many server boxes -- to run virtual servers. In addition, Congdon said Capitol One has used the technology to grow into more of a full-service bank faster, moving beyond its image as a credit card company. He explained that financial applications used by newer business units can be added to a collective of servers, instead of relying on the old, more expensive philosophy that every new application deserves its own server, Congdon said.

With the older system, provisioning a new server would take up to eight weeks; it now takes just two weeks, Congdon said. That reduction has made it possible to support faster application development cycles, something the bank needs as it grows.

Congdon said "any" application, mission-critical or not, can be considered viable for running on a virtual server. Some analysts have noted that server virtualization is most often used for more routine tasks not vital to an organization.

Capitol One is also evaluating the use of open-source virtualization, although he would not name any particular software. How it performs in tests will determine whether it is used, he said.

Detroit Medical Center, with nine hospitals in Detroit, has been using virtualization software for three years and expects to expand beyond the 20 servers now sharing up to four virtual servers apiece, said John Karras, director of technical services at the center. So far, the virtualization process has yielded a 40% increase in servers without requiring more server administrators, he said.

Karras is skeptical of using open-source software in a medical environment. "The problem is that there's nobody to call" if a problem arises, he said. "And if there is somebody to call, it means it's not really open-source and you'll be paying for support."

Also skeptical is Mike Simson, director of operations at American Modern Insurance Group Inc. in Cincinnati, which has 170 virtual servers running on 140 server boxes. "My philosophy is the same about open-source as what they used to say -- that nobody ever got fired by buying IBM," Simson said. He also pointed to cost reductions in server maintenance using virtualization but couldn't provide an amount.

Server virtualization is also being used in smaller companies. Riester, an advertising firm with 100 employees in Phoenix, has been using a single server box with three virtual servers running on VMware, said Dan Peterson, director of IT. He said that the cost of VMware has pushed him to consider XenSource, which he is testing currently. VMware charges for management software, which the company is trying to avoid, and Peterson said he doesn't have any reservations about trying open-source in his shop.

IDC has seen enormous growth in virtualized servers, noting nearly 500,000 virtualized servers should ship in 2006, up from nearly zero just three years ago. By 2009, the number shipped should be 1.2 billion, according to the research firm. IDC analyst Michelle Bailey said a survey of IT managers in the U.S. by IDC last year showed widespread adoption of the technology, with even more growth for a variety of applications showing up in a more recent survey not yet released. "I'm shocked by the level of adoption of virtualization," she told a conference audience.

VMware dominates the commercial server virtualization market, competing with Microsoft, SWsoft and Cassatt, Bailey said. She said that with more virtualization being deployed, the next trend to follow will be how management software vendors provide tools to manage virtual environments. Last week, for example, Opsware announced a strategy for virtualization management.

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