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24 March 2009

Virtualization primer 1: benefits

By Andrew Clifford

Virtualization cuts cost and risk, gives you flexibility, and encourages architectures that are more aligned to business.

Over the past few weeks, I have been setting up test environments and evaluating hosting providers to support a forthcoming relaunch of the Metrici Advisor service. To support both testing and hosting, I have needed to get to grips with server virtualization.

You may already be familiar with virtualization, but just in case you are not, I thought I would write up what I have found as a short series of newsletters. This week I will cover the benefits of virtualization, and in later newsletters look at some of the technical concepts, review some examples, and make some recommendations. I will focus on what virtualization means to IT managers, rather than the technical detail.

Virtualization is a simple idea. Without virtualization, each physical computer runs just one operating system instance. Virtualization changes this by letting you run many independent operating system instances on each physical computer. Put simply, virtualization lets you cut up one big computer into lots of little computers.

Virtualization has many benefits.

Virtualization can reduce cost. As hardware power has increased, many servers are now significantly underutilised. I have seen huge servers that run at less than 5% of their capacity. Splitting these into multiple virtual servers lets you use this spare capacity instead of buying new servers.

Virtualization can reduce risk. If applications share the same server, they can disrupt each other. A rogue process can grab all the CPU and memory, or even interfere with the data of another application. Separating different applications out onto different virtual computers can greatly reduce this risk.

Virtualization gives flexibility. Virtualization removes the dependency of the operating system on a particular piece of hardware. It allows you to grow, shrink or move the virtual computer without having to modify the hardware.

Virtualization encourages aligned architectures. To achieve strong ownership, applications for different business areas need to be separate, and be supported by IT that can run independently of other areas. Virtualization allows you to do this cost effectively. You can have the economies of scale of running a small number of large computers, and the alignment of running a separate computer for each need.

From a management viewpoint, virtualization is almost magic. It allows you to manage production systems more flexibly, at lower cost and with reduced risk. It allows you to provide small systems economically, and scale these up smoothly. It allows you to set up multiple systems easily, for example to create multiple test environments.

Virtualization has been around for a long time. I started my career programming IBM mainframes, which have been providing virtualization since the 1970s. Virtualization has become more widespread, and now you can use it to build solutions with some of the economies of scale, flexibility and resilience of mainframes, but using much cheaper technology.

Having briefly outlined the benefits, next week I will give a management view of some of the technical concepts involved.

Next: Virtualization primer 2: concepts

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