Hardware

Cheat Sheet: Virtualisation

Update: It's becoming a reality…

Virtualisation? So I get to put on a funky headset and walk around a simulated landscape shooting aliens?
Okay, enough with the virtual reality of yesteryear. We're talking about virtualisation in terms of the creation of a virtual version of something - such as a server or storage device.

What's the point of that? If it's virtual it can't do anything useful in the real world, can it?
Just because you can't reach out and touch something doesn't mean it isn't real - or extremely useful to businesses.

So give me a real-life example.
You probably know a little about virtualisation if you've ever divided your computer's hard drive into different partitions - where a hard disk drive is divided to create, in effect, two separate hard drives.

This concept has been scaled up and various pieces of software have been developed so - for example - a physical server can hold a number of virtual servers, which may be running different operating systems.

But what's the point in having a virtual version instead of an actual one?
A lot of companies turn to virtualisation when they want to boost the capacity of their IT infrastructures - but in a cost- and space-efficient way.

One of the most common examples of how companies use virtualisation is within datacentres. Virtualisation allows the number of physical servers to be reduced as the real-life racks hold virtualised images of multiple servers.

Fewer physical servers mean a smaller electricity bill from the reduced amount of hardware and the fewer cooling systems needed - meaning virtualisation is good for the environment as it reduces the amount of carbon emissions needed to run corporate IT.

The virtualisation world is also more flexible - IT teams can shift virtual machines around the network without any manual work or the need to crawl under server room floors rearranging cables.

How else is virtualisation used?
As well as servers, you can also virtualise storage by pooling data from multiple devices into what appears to be a single storage device, managed from a central console. This means less storage hardware is needed to store the same amount of data.

Then there's desktop virtualisation in which users' individual computers run on operating systems and use applications that are located in a central server. As a result, users can access multiple operating systems on a single machine. There's also a benefit in terms of data loss: as very little data is held on the physical device itself, the risk of important data being lost or hijacked if the hardware goes missing is reduced.

But doesn't messing about with your servers and data like this carry its own risks?
Virtualisation is a relatively new area of technology and some analysts have warned companies to take their time to make sure they understand the potential security risks of virtualisation. The main concern is that virtualisation adds an additional software layer that dodgy characters might be able to attack. That said, as long as organisations take the obvious precautions as with any new software implementation, any risks shouldn't be too significant.

Another area for caution with virtualisation is software agreements. Software licences are inherently ambiguous and virtualisation can make them even more complex due to it becoming less clear at what points the software is accessed.

That all makes sense but is virtualisation really something that businesses need to worry about?
Granted, virtualisation's not on every IT chief's shopping list just yet but there's no shortage of firms already using the tech.

Research by Gartner earlier this year predicted one in five businesses will be using virtualisation by year's end - up from 12 per cent in 2008.

silicon.com's CIO Agenda research also found many heads of IT are eyeing the technology, with virtualisation named by more than half of CIOs as a technology they intended to focus on this year.

Virtualisation's rising star is perhaps unsurprising given its potential to save money and cut energy use - particularly appealing in today's economic climate.

The momentum around virtualisation looks likely to continue next year too: the technology more often than not features in analysts' lists of the top priorities for IT departments and Gartner recently named virtualisation for availability - or live migration to be precise - as one of the top 10 technologies CIOs need to plan for next year.

OK, have any big names jumped on the virtualisation bandwagon recently?
Well there are some extremely big business names going down the virtualisation path - and you can't get much bigger than the supermarket giant Tesco.

The company completed the virtualisation of 1,500 Windows servers last spring as it aimed to boost efficiency and cut carbon emissions. Using technology from Citrix, the supermarket giant reduced its server estate by a factor of 10 and predicted a 20 per cent drop in datacentre carbon emissions.

Fair enough. Who else has taken the plunge then?
Earlier this year, the NHS revealed that server virtualisation is a central plank in its efforts to slash carbon emissions by 10 per cent between 2007 and 2015 and by 80 per cent by 2050.

Other big names using virtualisation include global insurance company Aviva and the airline Virgin Atlantic, while the London 2012 Olympic Games is also considering taking the plunge.

Who are the big names on the vendor side?
Well the big players in virtualisation have traditionally been EMC-owned VMware and Citrix but some other, more generalist, tech vendors have got in on the act as well.

Microsoft, for example, is now touting its virtualisation capabilities - Windows Server 2008 's Hyper V technology was a major talking point when it was launched last year - while HP and IBM have been selling servers bundled with virtualisation software for a while now.

Cisco and open source software maker Red Hat are two other big names going after the virtualisation market.

Wow, if they're all getting in on the act virtualisation must be a pretty big deal…
Yes, watch this (virtual) space.

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