I rarely extol the benefits of a technological tool, preferring instead to see IT leaders focus on more effective management principles, the equivalent of becoming a better carpenter through skill-building versus buying a new saw. Occasionally, however, a tool becomes so compelling that it can provide the ultimate asset to a leader -- more time to focus on strategic management rather than becoming mired in operational details. Virtualization is one of those rare tools.
Many have begun to take advantage of the core benefit of virtualization: it uses the hardware resources you already own more effectively. There's a straightforward mathematical calculation that lets you determine how much hardware you could reallocate or dispose of in a virtual environment, and then a nice savings calculation that's little more than an exercise in multiplication. While this is all well and good, and one of the few areas in IT with easily demonstrated returns, it is just the tip of the iceberg, especially when you consider virtualization combined with large enterprise IT projects.
These large projects are generally the ones involving a dozen to several hundred people from across a company. A raft of implementation partners, software vendors, and ancillary forces are generally involved, to the point that each day of the project has a six-figure price tag. While no one will scoff at carting $50,000 of hardware out of the data center and off the balance sheet, saving days or weeks in a $500 million project is vastly more compelling. So how can virtualization help you accomplish this feat? Here are a few ideas:
Rapidly deploy complete "dry run" environments
Most in IT have experienced the dreaded eleventh-hour failure, where the carefully tested system that made it through testing with flying colors fails as soon as the proverbial switch is flicked. Companies spend significant amounts of time and money on "cutover" testing, where this migration process is done as a dry run specifically to avoid these types of failure. While critical, this type of testing requires building a duplicate of your production environment, a time-consuming and costly process. With virtualization in place, however, you can deploy copies of your production environment in minutes rather than days and practice "going live" repeatedly with minimal setup between iterations.
Trimming the two or three days of setup time for each dry run is certainly a concrete savings, and preventing a go-live debacle is, as the commercial says, priceless. Most of the virtualization products even allow you to build virtual networks and desktops, allowing you to literally create a duplicate of your company's IT infrastructure, perform whatever dastardly deeds you wish upon it, and then wipe the slate clean and start over with a few clicks.
Get out of the hardware business
Traditionally, a new business application had a hardware acquisition and setup component that users loathed. Purchasing needed to be invoked, setup of the hardware always took longer than expected, and IT inherited yet another box to integrate and manage. With virtualization, hardware acquisition and maintenance can become an internal utility, managed for capacity and available to the entire company.
Should a new business application appear on the horizon, IT can devote its time and expertise to suggesting improvements, providing project management expertise, and suggesting ways to integrate with the rest of the enterprise rather than determining how many GB of RAM to buy.
Disconnecting software from the hardware that it runs on is a difficult mental leap, but once you make it, you will realize that there are countless other ways virtualization could impact your enterprise projects. For example:
- Create a virtualized desktop that has your current corporate operating system, software, and required security packages in place and give it to your consultants. You'll save a few dollars on provisioning and providing them with laptops, maintain your standard software, and even be thanked for not giving them another computer to lug around.
- Use virtualization to take a "snapshot" of your dry run test environment after a dry run is successfully completed, and use that environment for training. Users will love having "real" data to train with rather than something concocted by a junior analyst.
- Create a standard virtual server that users can request for testing and experimenting with new business applications. You could even provision this automatically and archive it after a defined period.
Clearly, virtualization can be about far more than retiring a few servers or making the background functioning of IT a bit more efficient. Beyond touting the obvious benefits, consider how virtualization might provide significant savings when combined with large enterprise projects.
Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent over a decade providing strategy consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can follow his blog at www.itbswatch.com. All opinions are his and may not represent those of his employer.