Analysts agree that one of the key enablers of Green IT is virtualization. In order to save money on facilities, power, cooling, and hardware, analysts say moving to a virtual data center is a fundamental first step. By utilizing the untapped processing power of today’s high-power servers and storage devices, IT teams can deliver the same, or improved, performance with reduced operating expenses, a smaller data center footprint, and significantly curtailed greenhouse gas emissions.

Even in these fragile economic times, CIOs are investing in virtualization. A 2008 survey from CIO Research indicates that 85% of CIOs surveyed have implemented virtualization in the data center, and 81% believe that their virtualization efforts have resulted in significant savings. Apart from the savings, and the corporate responsibility benefits from a Greener IT profile, CIOs cite other important benefits, which include simplified maintenance, improved disaster recovery plans, and the ability to provision systems and new applications more quickly.

While the green benefits of virtualization are acknowledged, the survey also revealed some surprising pitfalls amidst the virtualization euphoria. 42% of CIOs surveyed said that political and organizational challenges are as big a problem as technical issues. Many CIOs also noted that IT teams are still operating in silos, creating integration difficulties that can impede virtualization success.

Benefits and challenges of virtualization

So how can organizations achieve the stellar returns associated with virtualization, both in cost efficiency and in terms of Green IT benefits, while avoiding the pitfalls? Let’s analyze the key benefits and challenges of virtualization.

The most obvious benefit is cost savings in hardware acquisition. Because virtualization allows enterprises to buy and support fewer physical servers, hardware costs in the virtualized IT organization decrease substantially — up to 50% according to some analysts. Maintenance costs can decline in parallel.

Facilities savings are also significant, as reduced data center footprints result in savings in real estate, power, and cooling expenses. Many organizations have utilized virtualization to avoid building new data centers and to shrink the footprint of their existing data centers by up to 60%. Virtualized IT environments enable enhanced backup and data recovery operations by facilitating automated failover. These environments can also help speed development efforts by making it easier to bring up development servers though the use of template-driven provisioning.

Every silver lining has a cloud, and virtualization is no exception. As previously mentioned, there are often numerous political and organizational challenges related to virtualization. For instance, users often become accustomed to having their own dedicated servers that they can control and modify according to their schedule and whim. These “server huggers,” as they are often known in the virtualization community, can be resistant to the idea of migrating their applications to shared servers and often have significant political clout.

As anyone who has undertaken a virtualization project quickly discovers, many applications and hardware devices are not amenable to easy virtualization; therefore, a detailed assessment of applications and hardware in use is a key prerequisite to successful virtualization. Even if virtualization is technically feasible, many vendors offer limited support for virtual instances of their software, and some even refuse to honor warranties and maintenance contracts if their apps are running in a virtual environment.

Savings can be jeopardized by application vendor licensing policies, which in many cases have not caught up with the surge in virtualization. As popular as virtualization has become, it’s still a relatively new technology, and finding qualified technicians and support organizations can be difficult.

Finally, the virtualization landscape is still in flux. While VMware is the recognized leader in virtualization software at the moment, new products from Microsoft, Xen, and some upstart providers can drive the market to evolve quickly and unpredictably, threatening investments with obsolescence.

Going down the virtualization path

With all these factors to consider, how can IT organizations proceed down the virtualization road while avoiding the potholes? I suggest following this path:

  • Develop a Green IT business case: Because more IT executives replied to the CIO survey that they were motivated by green initiatives rather than cost efficiency, putting a Green IT spin on your virtualization project is a key success factor. The business case is critical not only because it outlines the size, scope, and ROI of the virtualization effort, but also because it sets the stage for the critical consensus building required. It’s a lot harder for server huggers to hang onto their individual machines when the company has a strong social responsibility initiative, and the ROI is compelling to the CFO and the rest of the organization. In these constrained economic conditions, persuading your organization to invest in a new approach to IT requires a set of clearly stated and supportable expectations, both green and economic. By estimating the number of servers to be virtualized, the percentage of consolidation expected, the ultimate potential savings, and the Green IT impact, and by demonstrating that you’ve thought through the implementation details and pitfalls, you become much more likely to build the executive support that a complex project such as virtualization requires.
  • Perform a virtualization assessment: As noted, not all applications and devices are subject to being virtualized. Many organizations lack a complete hardware and software inventory, and few have performed the in-depth utilization and criticality analysis that virtualization requires. Even fewer have analyzed their current power and thermal status, which is critical for setting green goals. Don’t underestimate the complexity and resource intensive nature of this exercise; a deep understanding of the organization’s hardware, software, and operating expenses is a critical success factor and often requires significant digging and analysis to deliver. Ask yourself these questions:

    – Is your organization delivering overcapacity, overpowering, and overcooling to the data center, leading to a significantly larger carbon footprint than necessary?

    – Which applications are amenable to virtualization?

    – How many multi-core machines are available to become part of the virtual environment?

    – Will the virtualization project affect vendor maintenance contracts or application warranties?

    The more completely your team can answer these questions, the more likely your chances for success.

  • Select the appropriate hardware and software: Once you understand the current situation, you must determine how you’ll approach your virtualization project. For instance:

    – Will you utilize only existing servers or purchase new energy-efficient gear?

    – Will you virtualize storage at the same time or save that for a later effort?

    – Will you select VMware due to its market leadership, Xen because of its open source heritage, or Microsoft because of its existing relationships and applications?

    As in every software and hardware selection effort, a structured approach to decision making, with a disciplined analysis of pros and cons will lead to a better outcome.

  • Define your virtualization migration path: Will you follow an incremental path to virtualization, starting small and spreading your program out over months or years, or will you attempt to achieve the cost-savings and Green IT benefits quickly by migrating at a rapid rate? Will you migrate critical applications first or test your theories and plans on low-impact apps to be sure you understand the consequences before completely jumping in? Defining your plans before you begin the migration activities ensures that you think about the risks and implications before you plunge in and helps persuade your executive sponsors that you’re taking a prudent approach to virtualization.
  • Perform a Proof of Concept (POC) project: As with any major IT project, you can’t know the hidden difficulties and gotchas before you attempt implementation. By learning your lessons in a POC project, you can protect the actual migration from unforeseen risks and difficulties, and learn how to deal with your complex new virtual environment before you migrate production systems. Demonstrating some “quick hit” cost savings and Green IT benefits can go a long way toward persuading doubters to jump on the bandwagon.
  • Develop operational and maintenance procedures: Often left to last, operational and maintenance procedures are critical to the success of your virtual environment; these procedures should be designed before the implementation, not afterwards. As previously noted, many vendors and outsourced service providers lack familiarity with virtual environments, or have restrictive guidelines for honoring contracts and SLAs when applications are virtualized. In addition, qualified internal resources can be rare, and existing staff members often require specialized training to get up to speed. Think through these issues up-front. Remember that one major disruption in your new virtual environment can cause a massive loss of faith among your user community.
  • Migrate to a virtual environment: According to industry research group Info-Tech, the typical virtualization implementation takes about seven months, including the POC. Create a detailed project plan that defines the tasks and steps required to perform your migration. Think through your back out plan in case there are unforeseen difficulties, and test every element of your consolidation as you go to ensure no unpleasant surprises for your users.
  • Measure your Green IT benefits and savings: Be sure to perform an “after-action report” to compare your projected benefits, both economic and Green IT, to your actual achievements. These lessons are essential, as virtualization is an ongoing program that will be continually applied as new applications come online, more energy-efficient hardware is available, and new developments in the virtualization market compel additional efforts.
  • Continue to virtualize and consolidate: Once you perform a successful virtualization, codify your learnings and processes so that subsequent efforts can continuously gain in efficiency. One of the key observations of a Green IT migration is that staying Green is as challenging as getting Green, so IT teams need to learn their lessons, stay engaged, and don’t allow their Green investment to dissipate. Create processes that enable user groups to request virtualization, build templates to speed provisioning, and create “run books” that document your operational policies so they’re not dependent on the expertise of individuals.

The savings and Green IT benefits of virtualization are achievable, as evidenced by the great majority of CIOs who express high satisfaction in their virtualization programs. By following a structured approach, such as the one recommended above, organizations can integrate virtualization into the fabric of their IT practices and gain efficiencies on a continual basis.

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