The rise and pitfalls of data centre virtualisation

By Merri Mack
Tuesday, 04 October, 2011

Data centre operators continue to be hounded by perennial problems like rising energy costs and increasing compute demands. Many are seeking to virtualise the entire data centre in order to get a leg-up. But this pursuit carries many dangers, as Merri Mack found out.

IT departments often have a tough time with their data centres, trying to balance rising energy costs with increasing demands from the business. Technologies that promise a way out appear on the horizon, but IT just doesn’t have the resources to implement them.

So, logically, organisations are moving to third-party data centres and the data centre providers are responding in kind by building more data centres.

Digital Realty Trust has just announced its second data centre investment in Australia this year, within the Paramount Industrial Park, approximately 19 km west of the Melbourne central business district. Its first data centre site is located in Erskine Park in the Western Sydney Employment Hub.

The company joins Macquarie Telecom, which is building a data centre in Sydney’s North Ryde; Equinix, which opened stage one of its third data centre in Sydney in August; and Western Australian company ASG, which opened its data centre in September. Sources suggest Dell is considering building a data centre, and Hewlett-Packard is already in the process of building one at Eastern Creek in Sydney’s west.

Virtualisation and efficiency

Data centre growth shows no sign of slowing but cloud computing and virtualisation is changing the way data centres operate. The lowest energy consumption for power and cooling are almost a given now in the quest for the holy grail of ‘green IT’ and a Tier 1 rating with virtualisation playing its part in cutting down on energy costs.

Arun Chandrasekaran, Research Director, ICT Practice, Frost & Sullivan, says, “Server and storage virtualisation is the primary data centre investment priority for organisations right now. Another area of gradual change within the data centre is that of cloud computing.

”The increase in virtualisation investment is expected to grow out of the continuing shift towards server virtualisation in the data centre plus through the emergence of virtual desktops that will solve many organisational challenges relating to security, control and mobility,” says Chandrasekaran.

When organisations look at the data centre, they need to focus less on the specifics of what hardware and software infrastructure is in play. Instead, they should focus more on the specific outcomes they are after. So says James Turner, data centre adviser for analyst company IBRS.

And in many cases, Turner says, organisations, “are happier to liberate themselves from those considerations and the lock-in of operating systems (OS) that have held them captive for so long.”

“Virtualisation has liberated them from the likes of Unix and Microsoft OSs. The advent of VMWare has proved the bloat of the operating systems is not necessary and they now know they can virtualise and slim down,” Turner says.

“For example HP, IBM, and Dell are providing their modular data centres. Customers can now treat data centre as a service, and not an entity that needs to be constantly fed,” Turner says.

Turner recalls working in the early 2000s for an application service provider where clients did not care what hardware their applications were running on.

“It was almost the precursor to virtualisation. That’s how it should be. As long as clients get the outcome they want with a good response and access,” he says.

Turner says that organisations are trying to virtualise as much as they can, but many are hitting a wall.

“Medium to large enterprises are well along the line in virtualising everything they can. In some cases they get to 90% virtualisation and but can’t virtualise the last 10% because of legacy applications,” Turner says.

“There is almost a universal desire to move to 100% virtualisation but 30-40% of organisations meet a roadblock,” says John Martin, Principal Technologist for NetApp ANZ.

“It depends quite a bit on culture and the desire of the business to do it. For example, the banking industry is more virtualised because they suffered financial constraints during the GFC, so they had to do it. Whereas the government is less virtualised because it was not such an imperative financially,” says Martin.

Emerging technologies

Graham Schultz, Regional Director, Brocade Australia, says that Australia is the leading country in virtualisation deployment and cloud computing. “The reason is we are early technology adopters, we have the skills, and business processes and data centre processes are very mature,” he says.

Brocade offers data centre switches that claim to improve network utilisation in virtualised data centres. A distance extension optimisation product to help deliver the virtual data centre for inter-data virtual machine (VM) mobility will be available in the 2012 time frame. According to Shultz this will also promote transparent movement of VMs between data centres.

Some of the company’s clients in Australia have implemented the product but are in the early stages of deployment, so Brocade is unwilling to use them as reference sites as yet.

Andrew Cameron, ProLiant Product Manager for HP South Pacific says, “Increasingly, data centre virtualisation is becoming core to the business strategy. IT departments have to rapidly implement highly customised, incompatible stacks of IT systems to meet the needs of each application. The result is the creation of islands of IT - IT silos that turn into virtual sprawl, limiting a company’s ability to respond rapidly to business changes.”

To help IT departments deal with these problems, HP has released several products and services under its converged infrastructure technology, such as the CloudSystem Matrix, which helps to eliminate IT silos and integrate them into pools of interoperable resources. It pulls together servers, storage and networks and allows them be managed from a common platform.

Lurking dangers

Matt Miller, Avaya’s Director of Data Solutions for ANZ, reckons that people don’t realise how important the network is in a virtualised data centre.

“Thankfully, network virtualisation is becoming a more mature discussion, which over recent times has been confused with server virtualisation and applications, which tended to be on the forefront of most peoples thoughts,” Miller says.

“Without a robust, resilient, virtualised network underpinning these assets, the data centre environment would remain static and confined within the bricks and mortar, restricting the operational capability of the data centre investment. Being able to leverage the network to explode these assets outwards in a secure manner is where customers’ expectations now lie,” said Miller.

As a specialist systems integrator, Bridge Point Communications focuses on helping organisations build out data centre fabric, compute and network services. Dave Robbins, Network Technology Specialist, Bridge Point Communications, makes some pertinent points to be aware of when undertaking a virtualisation project.

“Virtualisation can break existing team structures,” Robbins says.

According to Robbins, a typical mid-to-large enterprise will have specialised server, compute, storage and security teams supporting the infrastructure.

“Virtualisation tends to break this model as it introduces things like virtual network switches within the virtual environment, which tend to end up getting managed by the server team or by a bespoke ‘virtualisation team’,” he says.

“In some cases, I’ve been witness to some surprising ‘Oh, but I thought you were looking after that portion’/‘No, I thought you were’ moments at some organisations,” he says.

According to Robbins, this ‘people problem’ has had a big impact on the reliability of virtualisation in the data centre and could mean that organisations find it harder to get a return on virtualisation.

If these issues aren’t addressed, he says, they can lead to “security/availability risks and a lack of cohesion which limits the benefits of virtualisation.”

“Organisations virtualise to enable them to be agile to take on new projects. Server boy and network boy between them are reducing agility of the environment. There are two key ways to solve it,” he says.

“Reviewing processes, roles and responsibilities can assist, and likewise some technologies have emerged which bridge the divide,” said Robbins.

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