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Everybody’s talking about virtualization. More importantly, many have stopped talking and are taking action to bring the cost savings, improved availability and greater productivity of virtualization solutions to their networks.

According to the International Data Corporation, 18.2 percent of all new servers shipped in the fourth quarter of 2009 were virtualized, a four-percent increase over the same quarter in 2008. The recession took a toll on the overall numbers for the year, but spending on virtualization still stood at $15.2 billion for all of 2009.

Those may be impressive numbers, but at this stage in the development of the technology, virtualization may still seem like something that larger, more technically-savvy organizations do.

What follows should answer some of the questions you may have about virtualization and allow you to see how it can save money and improve productivity in almost any organization. There’s never been a better time to set your organization on a path toward more fully leveraging your technology investment.

What Virtualization Is…And What It Is Not
Think of virtualization as the partitioning, or dividing, of one physical piece of computer hardware into several virtual machines. Each machine interacts independently with devices, applications, data and users as though it were a stand-alone physical resource.

What makes it all work is a piece of software called a hypervisor. Also known as a virtualization manager, this software runs between the hardware and the operating system, and decouples the operating system and applications from the hardware. The hypervisor manages system resources (memory, storage, networking, mouse, keyboard and peripherals) and provides for loading multiple operating systems on a single physical computer.

There are three common types of virtualization:

  1. Server Virtualization. When people talk about virtualization, they’re usually referring to server virtualization, which is where one physical server is partitioned into several virtual servers. How many partitions are possible depends on the capacity and configuration of the physical machine and the requirements of the applications. A room full of server “boxes” dedicated to individual functions can often be replaced by one or two “boxes” running multiple independent operating systems and applications.
  2. Desktop Virtualization. This type of virtualization allows a central server to provide desktop computer functionality for multiple users. In some instances, one server-based computer can replace 30, 40 or even 50 desktop computers. Users get the full client experience, while the IT staff can manage and upgrade resources virtually rather than having to maintain the physical workstations. Desktop virtualization enhances security over applications and data, minimizes service disruptions, and can provide a lower cost alternative to replacing user workstations.
  3. Application Virtualization. Virtualization of applications separates programs from the hardware and the operating system, and allows them to be securely delivered to end users regardless of their location or device. Commonly known as Terminal Services, Remote Desktop or Citrix XenApp, application virtualization allows for efficient delivery of applications to users as well as a significant decrease in the time required to maintain applications.

What’s In It For You?
When managing multiple servers and desktops, you may be wasting half or more of the hardware’s capability. Virtualization fully leverages your technology investment by enhancing the ability of a computer server or storage device to work.

A typical virtualization scenario may go something like this:

  1. The majority of the organization’s server hardware is coming up for renewal.
  2. Twenty-five servers are currently in use, each playing its own individual role.
  3. Although several machines are scheduled to be retired, they are still being underutilized.
  4. A virtualization assessment determines that 25 servers can be consolidated down to three using a shared storage device.
  5. Equipment savings, time savings, energy savings, flexibility and availability accelerate the return on investment.

The Virtual Future is Here
Virtualization will never be all things to all organizations. For example, applications requiring higher-than-average memory and processing power (CAD design, graphics, and photo or video manipulation) may be best left on their own dedicated systems. Likewise, some applications may not warrant the investment in virtualization because they will never realize its full potential. But in many cases, the cost savings and improvements in efficiency and availability will outweigh the initial challenges.

Keep in mind that, just as multiple physical servers must be monitored and managed, so must virtualized servers. Because virtual servers are relatively easy to set up, the number of virtual servers can multiply quickly. Keeping track of data and applications is vital to your success.

Virtualization is not a magic solution—it is merely a tool to accomplish your strategic technology goals. With the lingering effects of the recession beginning to dwindle, the benefits of virtualization should be considered as businesses bring those goals back into focus. iBi

Scott Stevens is a partner with Clifton Gunderson Technology Solutions in Peoria.