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Virtualization in the data center fast guide

Adam Trujillo, Assistant Editor
In his server virtualization overview, SearchDataCenter.com's Matt Stansberry says that this technology moved into the mainstream data center faster than anyone imagined. And judging by the support

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vendors are building into their products, the forthcoming SPEC benchmark and other market indicators, it doesn't look like it's going to leave anytime soon. In this fast guide to server virtualization, you'll learn about the different types of virtualization being deployed, how server and infrastructure management has changed because of this technology, some of the different hardware and software offerings and more.

Virtualization management and metrics

Although server virtualization can be defined broadly, there are variations within virtualization. Each type brings a layer of complexity that must be managed. In other words, if you want to deploy server virtualization in your data center to simplify your management projects, think again; someone still needs to manage those virtual machines.

You can't manage what you can't measure, which became apparent when SPEC announced plans to for a server virtualization performance benchmark. In order to help the non-profit group develop the benchmark, they assembled a committee comprised of heavyweight vendors, such as Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), Dell, Intel, Sun Microsystems, IBM and VMware, to name a few.

After the announcement, SearchDataCenter.com caught up with SPEC president Walter Bays and asked him what the SPEC server virtualization benchmark would look like. Because server virtualization can be looked at from an application or hardware performance perspective, creating the benchmark will likely be a complex task.

Virtualization saves power, helps with disaster recovery

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If server virtualization is so complex and there won't be a performance benchmark for some time, why go virtual? It can cut down on your energy bill for starters. Late last year, Northern California's utility company Pacific Gas & Electric Co. (PG&E) launched a new incentive program aimed at energy conservation. Under the program, PG&E customers earn cash for every kilowatt-hour they save thanks to virtualization in their data centers.

But trimming that power bill is only one way that server virtualization can improve data center operations. As Las Vegas Valley Water District's (LVVW) data center found out during a power outage, server virtualization can have a role in disaster recovery. LVVW originally began implementing virtual servers as a strategy for reducing server sprawl. But when the power outage hit, the data center manager discovered server virtualization's potential as part of a disaster recovery plan.

IT consultant, subcontractor and owner of Ohio-based PBnJ Solutions Paul Winkler agrees that the server virtualization makes good disaster recovery sense. A major advantage for Winkler is the ability to use server virtualization for disaster recovery testing, something that's more time consuming with physical servers.

Also on the virtualization-for-disaster recovery bandwagon is DR services provider SunGard. The company is turning to server virtualization and VMware to speed time to recovery for its customers. SunGard's director of product development Don Norbeck says that results from the company's recent study showed that the traditional 48 hour recovery objective is no longer acceptable for most customers; they need a 12 hour turnaround time for bringing systems back on line.

Blade servers, x86-based, mainframes: What's the best platform for virtualization?

Data center managers who run a mainframe shop are usually quick to point out that they've been using virtualization on the mainframe for years. According to Big Iron guru, Wayne Kernochan, mainframe virtualization is more attractive than ever because scaling up on the mainframe gives users a relatively simpler environment than x86-based servers.

As Kernochan points out, the heart of virtualization on the mainframe is the z/VM platform. The newest version, z/VM 5.3, supports more memory and extra processing capacity, translating in to greater numbers of workloads that can run on the mainframe virtualization. The upgrade comes as a boon to shops consolidating Linux workloads from x86-based servers to the Z platform.

But data centers aren't just focusing on mainframes for their virtualization projects. Blade servers have become a popular choice because of their ability to increase processing density. In fact, data center strategist Kyle Rankin points out the benefits of using blade servers for ultra-dense server deployments. This approach involves combining blade server, virtualization and SAN technologies in the data center, which can save on hardware costs and power.

However, IT managers need to consider all the angles before choosing blade server hardware for virtualization projects. Though the blade servers might be an excellent choice for some virtualization projects, they aren't the best choice for heavy workloads, such as virtualizing a SQL server. In other words, when it comes to blade servers in virtualization, one size does not fit all.

Unix boxes are also a server virtualization option. In fact, Sun is providing support for Xen virtualization on its Solaris OS in an attempt to draw more customers to its Unix platform. The open source one-two punch of OpenSolaris and Xen virtualization support is an alternative to other Unix shops that want to get into the virtualization game.

Server virtualization software and support and management tools

As with virtualization hardware, data center managers must choose their software wisely. The maturity of the virtualization software management tools and threat of server sprawl are serious issues, according to virtualization expert and instructor at ECPI Technical College Chris Wolf. He adds that VMware has proven to be a mature vendor providing relevant data center tools. In fact, VMware's release of the Infrastructure 3 suite, which is designed to combine virtualization and management software, may be indicative of the progress that the EMC subsidiary has been making.

In addition to VMware's management tools, open source virtualization management options, such as Groundwork and Nagios, are available for users who want to keep costs low and flexibility high. However, as IT director at the Connecticut-based nonprofit human services organization FSW, Joseph Foran points out, IT staff must still have access to adequate training for any management tool to be effective.

Open source options go beyond management tools, though. Mandriva, publisher of the Linux operating system with the same name, offers OpenVZ virtualization software in its latest corporate server package, Corporate Server 4.0. This software is intended to be an open source option comparable to VMware's software.

This was first published in May 2007

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