Mission Critical Applications Joining The Virtualization Party

There was a time, just a few years ago, when the idea of putting databases, ERP, CRM and unified communications systems in virtual environments would've made IT administrators break out into a cold sweat. That's because virtualization was an intriguing but unproven concept at the time, and certainly not a technology one would stake their reputation on -- or their job, for that matter.

Things have changed a lot since then: Virtualization technology has made great performance and reliability strides, and barriers to virtualizing mission critical or tier one applications have finally begun to melt. The industry's fanatical embrace of cloud computing is accelerating this trend, since virtualization is a necessary component that paves the way for the next generation cloud data center.

"We're telling customers that the more you virtualize, the better it will be for you when you move to cloud," said Bobby Mulligan, director of online and cloud services at Champion Solutions Group. "At first, they're cautious, until they get the performance matching up to what production requires. After they see that, they're a lot more willing to adopt virtualization."

But there's still work to be done in getting organizations comfortable with the idea of moving vital applications from physical to virtual environments. VMware CEO Paul Maritz recently cited industry analyst predictions that 50 percent of workloads industry-wide will be running in virtual environments by the end of the year. And virtualization VARs are now scrambling to stake their claim in the remaining 50 percent.

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While some of this business is flowing in due to market tides, VARs with the necessary skills are also going out and winning it. Varrow, a Greensboro, N.C.-based solution provider, has built an entire practice around virtualization of tier one business applications.

Later this month at VMworld, Dan Weiss, CEO and co-founder of Varrow, will give a presentation outlining his company's approach to running workloads such as Microsoft SQL Server, Oracle 11 and 10g in virtual environments.

Shane Vinup, president and CEO of Maple Grove, Minn.-based solution provider Cyber Advisors, estimates that 95 percent of his customer base has moved at least one mission critical application from physical to virtual environments.

"We deal with a lot of different verticals and it's been steadily happening in all of them over the last two to three years," he told CRN. "The only time we actually need to make the sale is when speaking to IT directors who've been around a while and maybe had a bad experience back in the day."

Next: How To Sell Virtualization Performance

The key to the sale, according to Vinup, is to make customers aware that they won't have to sacrifice performance when making the physical-to-virtual shift. In fact, in many cases customers will actually see a performance improvement, according to solution providers.

"We recently did an ERP migration into a virtualized environment. We used the same exact same hardware and got better performance by moving from internal disk to SAN using virtualization," Vinup said.

Jamie Shepard, executive vice president of technology solutions at ICI, a Marlborough, Mass.-based solution provider, is seeing steady business from virtualizing customers' databases, fueled in large part by the performance gains they're getting. "Oracle database and SAP actually perform better in a properly virtualized infrastructure," he said.

The only migration scenarios that pose problems are ones involving legacy hardware or extremely I/O intensive applications, Vinup said. "We've had one case in the last six months where a customer had an application that couldn't be virtualized," he said. "It was an Oracle system at a bank, and it's only an issue with older storage or servers. All newer equipment can handle virtualization."

But although physical-to-virtual migrations make sense, they can be tricky to pull off. Champion Solutions Group is currently in the midst of migrating a customer's SQL database on physical infrastructure into a vSphere-based cloud. The biggest challenge, Mulligan says, is ensuring that the infrastructure components surrounding the database aren't disrupted during the course of the migration.

"It's a very large move in light of the operational dependencies a company typically has on that system. There are lots of moving pieces and integration points for applications, so it's a big project," Mulligan said.

Server virtualization became popular due to the capex savings it yields, but that boom phase is fading quickly into the rearview mirror. But organizations that are moving mission critical applications to virtual environments aren't doing it for the capex savings, but to improve scalability and performance, or for disaster recovery purposes.

In many cases, customers are taking this step as part of the infrastructure evolution that the cloud necessitates.

"What's happening is that companies are developing cloud strategies and they're moving their whole data centers from physical to virtualized in preparation for private cloud offerings," said Mike Strohl, president of Entisys, a Concord, Calif.-based virtualization VAR. "This means everything is being virtualized, except for critical databases."

Next: Data Warehousing Systems Making The Jump

Data warehousing systems have long been synonymous with physical infrastructure, but ICI's Shepard says growing adoption of cloud and mobility are prompting organizations to move them to virtual environments.

"In most data warehouse environments, there's a legacy mindset of putting big data on a large physical array and physical server. But that's going to hold back the infrastructure from evolving.

"We're getting customers to realize that through virtualization, they're not going to have to sacrifice performance -- they're actually going to gain and utilize more resources," Shepard said. "It's all about application portability and mobility, and you have to do it through virtualization."

VMware can take much of the credit for getting the industry to the halfway point in virtualized workloads, and its forthcoming release of vSphere 5 is set to blast away -- with cartoon-style force -- any remaining performance related barriers that stand in the way of running mission critical applications in the virtual environment.

"We've done a good job of taking lot of infrastructure applications and virtualizing them. Now the focus is on virtualizing tier one applications," Carl Eschenbach, VMware's president of customer operations, told CRN in June.

vSphere 5, slated for launch in the third quarter, supports virtual machines with up to 32 virtual CPUs, compared to 8 virtual CPUs in vSphere 4. vSphere 5's virtual machines can also hold up to one terabyte of virtual RAM, compared to 256 gigabytes for those of their predecessor. Despite some concerns over VMware's new vSphere licensing model, VARs are confident that any remaining virtualization stumbling blocks they'll face in the future will be psychological ones.

"vSphere 4 represented a big leap forward in terms of feature set and performance, and vSphere 5 will accelerate this even more dramatically," said Weiss.