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How to choose between cloud computing and virtualization

When it comes to cloud and virtualization, asking the right questions will help your IT org choose between the two or support a combination.

Cloud computing and virtualization have their merits, but choosing between the two depends on how well an organization fits with each model.

Many organizations are just starting a virtualization journey. IT teams beginning to virtualize systems have many decisions to make, such as whether to follow the usual path to server virtualization first or move directly to a private cloud infrastructure.

Server virtualization saves money at hardware refresh. Over time, the increased agility brings a focus to operational cost. Cloud computing -- private, hybrid or public -- is about operational efficiency and passes greater control of IT to the business. The operational readiness of the organization, among other factors, determines whether going straight to cloud makes sense.

An organization that isn't ready for the operational change that cloud brings is better served by server virtualization, whereas more agile organizations gain additional benefits by moving straight to cloud computing.

Why server virtualization?

Server virtualization predates private cloud, and gained popularity due to massive CapEx savings. A few hypervisor hosts and a management console replaces dozens or even hundreds of physical servers. Data centers deploy virtualization and gain huge cost savings from buying fewer servers.

Today, server virtualization is a destination, or a step along the path to private and hybrid cloud. Adopting server virtualization brings big cost savings that demonstrate IT's understanding of business needs, and moving slowly is less disruptive for IT organizations. Starting with server virtualization allows a conservative organization to accelerate architecture modernization at a safe pace.

Once an organization is up to speed with server virtualization, the groundwork is laid for a move to cloud computing. Data centers that undergo a virtualization initiative have a better understanding of what the organization will gain from cloud.

Why private cloud?

Server virtualization is essentially about technology, while private cloud is an operational model.

Over a few years of virtualization, IT teams build a platform that allows for fast change. The ability to deploy servers in minutes using virtual machines (VMs) allows the IT organization to respond rapidly to business needs. The process where the business requests VMs becomes the bottleneck, which leads some IT departments to allow business users to create and manage their own VMs.

Private cloud automates VM provisioning and the surrounding infrastructure. The cloud platform handles provisioning server names, IP addresses and networks and storage. This degree of automation requires IT teams that previously controlled these changes to be willing and able to hand authority to the users.

The only reason private cloud might require more resources is that it makes deploying more VMs easier.

Which path is better?

Is there a clear choice between cloud computing and virtualization?

Consider the company and typical IT scenarios. For organizations with a lot of compliance and change control gates, cloud computing can be a difficult hurdle. A pharmaceutical company with a six-week change control process to allocate an IP address is unlikely to gain a lot of benefits from allowing project teams to provision VMs in 30 minutes.

Other IT groups will gain a lot of agility from immediately responding to changing business requirements. An IT team with a backlog of one hundred requests to deploy VMs sees a clear benefit from automating the process via a private cloud platform.

Fast organizational change can be very disruptive. Server virtualization saves a lot of money without requiring a lot of organizational change in IT. However, to get the greatest benefit out of virtualization, IT team structure and processes tend to change over time. Private cloud takes these changes to the extreme, while some organizations choose a phased approach of server virtualization followed by private cloud to minimize confusion, overlapping responsibilities or underskilled positions.

Rather than considering server virtualization and cloud computing separately, look at cloud as a tool that makes server virtualization easier to use. It won't change the work that needs to be done, but it will ease the daily chores of the team and might motivate them to engage in more projects.

Why not virtualization and cloud?

Server virtualization may be as far as an organization is ready to move its production environment. It allows a lot of change management and governance to remain in place while adding efficiency. On the other hand, development and test environments tend to have far fewer restrictive policies. Dev/test is also likely to have a much higher rate of change than production, meaning IT teams have to do more work to support the environment. A private cloud suits dev/test environments very well.

If your IT organization deploys cloud for dev/test, use it to gain an understanding of how private cloud affects operations and infrastructure. A few months with an isolated private cloud is a great way to gain knowledge and trust in the platform. This will guide any future decisions about making it the center of the production environment.

About the author:
Alastair Cooke is a freelance trainer, consultant and blogger specializing in server and desktop virtualization. Known in Australia and New Zealand for the APAC virtualization podcast and regional community events, Cooke was awarded VMware's vExpert status for his 2010 efforts.


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