IT plays a variety of roles in the modern enterprise. Not only does it provide a platform for innovation and communication, it raises employee productivity, increases organisational agility and supports business intelligence. Technology also allows firms to automate business processes, streamline administration functions and ensure regulatory compliance. Fundamentally, these various functions can be placed under two main umbrellas – the sometimes-opposing business goals of managing costs and driving revenue. Independently, IT itself has the ability to contribute to both expenditure and turnover, and the major task for chief information officers (CIOs) is to ensure its revenue-generating potential exceeds its appetite for capital.
With businesses looking to increase IT efficiency and reduce overall outgoings, the role for virtualisation technology is self-evident. Such processes have come to the fore in recent years as solutions have matured, and while cloud computing continues to dominate the IT sector headlines, virtualisation is seen by many as being an equally important tool among corporate users. In simple terms, it is a cost-focused process involving the abstraction of physical resources, principally servers, desktops and storage architecture. Firms are able to separate IT functions from the hardware supporting them, allowing for a cost-saving consolidation of the data centre.
In many cases, individual computers and servers run at just a fraction of their full capacity - perhaps just ten to 15 per cent. Running multiple servers on one physical machine can help increase this figure to nearer 100 per cent, vastly reducing IT and financial resources required. Testament to this are businesses' reduced electricity bills, since virtualisation minimises the power and cooling costs associated with server management. As a result, virtual processes can play an integral part in green IT strategies – with both financial and environmental stakeholders standing to benefit.
With IT budgets remaining constrained, it should come as little surprise that CIOs are particularly keen to embrace virtualisation at present. A recent Gartner report identified this area as the second-top enterprise IT priority for 2011 after cloud computing – evidence of their eagerness to reduce technology expenditure, if not their carbon footprint. The firm predicted that by 2014, more than 70 per cent of all server workloads installed on new shipments will reside in a virtual machine, confirming the model's acceptance into the business IT mainstream. Supporting this finding, a study conducted by IT Expo 2010 revealed that 85.8 per cent of IT managers now view virtualisation as being a vital resource, with 81 per cent believing it will help improve data storage processes as well as cost savings.
Yet things are not quite so simple. Gartner recently reported a sizeable disparity between the number of companies with ongoing virtualisation initiatives, and the proportion of servers which have actually been virtualised. According to the IT analyst, more than 80 per cent of companies have some form of programme in place, but just a quarter of servers were fully virtualised by the end of 2010. So either companies have been rather slow rolling out their projects – this would be surprising given the potential cost savings involved – or there is a certain reluctance to fully commit to virtualisation. The report suggests UK firms are still testing the water, choosing to adopt a wait and see approach before ramping up their investment.
For some businesses, concerns over the security of virtualisation – perhaps stemming from negativity during the early stages of development - may serve as something of a constraint. Cloud computing has faced similar problems in this respect, given that many CIOs are reluctant to commit to any action which seemingly reduces their level of immediate IT control. While many of the fears held by businesses may be unfounded, the onus is clearly on vendors to prove the reliability of the virtualisation model – particularly where data storage is concerned.
"For most organisations, virtualisation will provide the foundation and the stepping stone for the evolution to private cloud computing," said Thomas Bittman, vice-president and distinguished analyst at Gartner. However, he said the need for security "must not be overlooked or 'bolted on' later during the transition", as this will unsettle users and potentially reduce their willingness to invest further.
Mr Bittman said that whether businesses are operating physical or virtualised data centres, or even private clouds, the fundamental tenets of IT security remain the same. The confidentiality, integrity, authenticity, access, and audit of information and workloads should not change, he commented. "Security must become adaptive to support a model where workloads are decoupled from the physical hardware underneath and dynamically allocated to a fabric of computing resources," Mr Bittman added.
Companies are clearly willing to invest in virtualisation, buoyed by positive reports from others, and the perceived benefits of abstract IT. The only question is how quickly they will move to fully virtualised environments. With companies eagerly shifting IT into the cloud, there is a danger that virtualisation programmes may be left behind, but with increased efficiencies beckoning, this is a trap to avoid. Indeed, the two concepts should not be considered in isolation, cloud computing and virtualisation are very much inter-related. The main distinction is simply in terms of hardware ownership, and as firms embrace their hosted services, they should also be maximising the effectiveness of their own internal IT.