IBM redefines 'virtual' data center

Real virtual servers inhabit fake virtual world

IBM is giving new meaning to the phrase "virtual data center." And it looks a lot more like Second Life than VMware.

Rather than build a virtual world for online gaming or to give users an alternative reality, Big Blue made a virtual world where IT executives can examine and manipulate hardware running in their very real data centers. The IBM project -- called 3-D Data Center -- gives IT shops a 3-dimensional, real-time virtual view of their data center resources, even if they are spread across the globe.

"It's a new way to look at systems and interact with them," says IBM researcher Michael Osias, the man behind this new idea. "Objects aren't just visualizations. You can think of them as little machines."

So instead of battling wizards and warriors, data center administrators get to play with their servers and storage. And it does look something like a game, even if it is not one, Osias notes. IBM contends its new technology will help businesses identify underutilized machines that can be eliminated, distribute workload among data centers, monitor power and cooling, and move processing to cooler sites depending on the weather.

Using avatars, IT operations executives move through their virtual data centers, viewing "a tailored 3-D replica of servers, racks, networking, power and cooling equipment."

A combination of open source software and IBM-built tools, the virtual data center can provide visualizations of any type of hardware, regardless of the vendor, as long as it has a network API. Instead of reading text describing the conditions of a data center, IT managers can look out for flames showing hotspots, examine visualizations that show server utilization rates, or receive alerts about system failures.

Just to make things linguistically confusing, you can even use the virtual world to modify virtual servers (the kind made possible by VMware) in a real data center.

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