'Virtualization Stall' And The Importance Of Planning Ahead

In organizations' mad rush to virtualize their IT infrastructure, some are running into unforeseen obstacles that cause them to put the brakes on virtualization deployments, sometimes indefinitely. This phenomenon, known as "virtualization stall," has more to do with psychology than technology, but it could potentially erode confidence in virtualization and slow growth of cloud computing.

According to solution providers, virtualization stall has several root causes: Some companies are unwilling or afraid to virtualize their tier one business applications. Others balk because of standards compliance issues related to data backup in virtualized infrastructure. Still others are disappointed when the cost efficiencies they've seen from server virtualization don't materialize on the desktop side, or when performance isn't up to snuff.

But the most common virtualization stall scenario begins when organizations start from the bottom up with virtualization, deploying it in piecemeal fashion for small, specific workloads. The cost benefits become quickly apparent, and companies increase the scope of their virtualization efforts, but they often fail to account for the business impact the technology can exert on operations, particularly in terms of roles, responsibilities and accountability.

"No one would ever say, 'Let's deploy an enterprise application from SAP or Oracle for a small point solution, and if it runs well we'll expand it.' But virtualization is deployed that way every single day," said Steve Kaplan, vice president of data center virtualization practices at INX, a Houston, Texas-based solution provider.

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Mike Strohl, president of Entisys, a Concord, Calif.-based virtualization VAR, says virtualization stall is more about the business and organizational impact the technology exerts than about the technology itself. "It's a matter of how you transform the business to manage the technology, as opposed to using technology to manage the business," he said.

In the absence of central planning and oversight from IT, management headaches can ensue due to the proliferation of virtual machines, Strohl added. "You’re changing the way you do things -- suddenly you take a desktop image and stick it in the server infrastructure. That one thing can generate months of conversation because now you've got two groups that are fighting over responsibility," he said.

Early adopters of server virtualization have been wowed by the return on investment and eager to keep the ball rolling by expanding company-wide virtualization deployments. Nick Bock, CEO and co-founder of Five Nines Technology Group, a Lincoln, Neb.-based solution provider, has seen an acceleration of this trend, known as server sprawl, in companies where such decisions don't require CFO authorization.

"As a solution provider, you can put a virtual solution in place for a company with 15 servers, and then touch base with them six months later and they've got 25 servers," Bock said.

Virtual infrastructure functions well in environments with sufficient storage, memory and processing power. But new virtual server deployments can alter these balances and lead to performance issues. The good news, according to Bock, is that these issues are avoidable when proper planning measures are taken.

"It simply requires discussion and consultation ahead of time," said Bock. "You need to put a process in place for new servers to be implemented. If systems administrators are left to own means, soon you will have 10 servers on network that may be taking up resources."

Next: Virtualization Stall On The Desktop Side

The effects of virtual stall are more pronounced on the desktop side, where the economics are different and the ROI isn't as quickly realized. Ken Phelan, CTO of Gotham Technology Partners, a solution provider based in Montvale, N.J., has been seeing frustrated customers pulling back from virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) deployments.

"There is definitely stall in the VDI space. Companies will deploy it and realize that it's more expensive than they expected, in terms of both the physical costs and the support costs," Phelan said.

The persistent virtual desktop model, in which each user is assigned a dedicated virtual machine, is especially problematic. Vendors have been pushing the persistent model as a way to simply VDI deployments, but in larger organizations, support and maintenance costs can cancel out the economic benefits, according to Phelan.

"There are challenges around the persistent model and that has stalled lot of larger installations. It's easy for 300 VDI desktops but not for 3,000, and organizations get stuck on that," Phelan said.

The VDI market has also been held back by a lack of operational maturity and ISVs' focus on developing for physical PC environments, Phelan said.

"There have been antivirus products that killed the economics of virtualization because they had to be installed on every machine," Phelan said. "The truth is, you have legacy stuff that's been engineered and architected for standalone, individual PCs, and it doesn't operate as well as it should in a virtual environment."

On the server side, a similar myopia exists in some firms when it comes to managing virtual infrastructure, said Kaplan. "The biggest single problem is that IT staff is looking at virtual environments from a physical perspective and applying physical toolsets and processes to virtual infrastructure," he said. "Most organizations I'm running into aren't backing up data at the virtual machine level, but at the application level."

Another contributing factor to virtualization stall is that companies are afraid to virtualize tier one business apps. Virtualization vendors insist the technology is capable of handling the rigorous use these apps require, but organizational decision makers tend to see things from a "If it isn't broke, don't fix it" perspective -- particularly when the wrong decision can have employment-related consequences.

"There's lots of fear out there about breaking what isn't broke, like converting a tier one application," said Keith Norbie, vice president of sales at Nexus Information Systems, a Minnetonka, Minn.-based solution provider. "Some folks are reluctant to do that until they refresh hardware. It's as much a psychological barrier as anything else."

Virtualization is a key building block for cloud computing, so the virtualization stall phenomenon would seem to have ominous potential for the growth of that industry. But virtualization solution providers see it as a mere bump in the road that can easily be fixed with the right amount of planning. In fact, some are of the opinion that companies that ponder the situation before diving into virtualization will have better results with the technology.

"Virtualization stall is prevalent, but it’s not an immovable force and it can be mitigated with the proper planning and strategic approach," said Kaplan. "It's certainly a temporary thing -- organizations will eventually virtualize everything because the economics will compel them to do so."