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Storage decisions crucial to virtualisation success

More businesses are turning to virtualisation technology, but many are struggling to get to grips with storage in the virtual data centre.

Demand for virtual servers is continuing to increase in business, as more companies look to streamline their IT processes. According to a recent report from IT analyst IDC, there was a 28 per cent increase in virtualisation deployments during 2010. Virtualised servers increased their share of the overall market to 19.4 per cent, up a whole percentage point on the previous year despite the rapid growth of cloud hosting. In total, 398,617 units were sold in the final quarter of 2010 alone, evidencing the high level of demand for server virtualisation within business. Revenue for the 12-month period stood at £10.2 billion, up 13.5 per cent on 2009, with Q4 alone witnessing a 23.3 per cent year-on-year rise.

Matt Eastwood, group vice-president of enterprise platforms at IDC, commented that 2010 was characterised by strong demand for new servers to support rapidly expanding virtualised environments. He noted that x86 systems in particular lead the way, as organisations take "a critical evolutionary step in the journey to the private cloud". Mr Eastwood explained that end users are focusing on mobility, self-provisioning, metering and chargeback capabilities as their IT environments mature, and for many, virtual servers have a vital role to play.

The opportunity to reduce the size of their data centres and cut energy consumption looks appealing to businesses, particularly in a constrained economic climate. But companies wishing to make the most of virtual servers should ensure they have considered the impacts of consolidation on IT as a whole. As with any major IT project, proper forward planning is essential in order to outline end goals, mitigate risks and identify other opportunities that are likely to emerge.

One issue that should be given particular consideration when embracing virtual servers is data storage. Organisations may be embracing virtualisation primarily as a cost-cutting measure, but IT buyers need to consider the impacts of scaling back their physical hardware on the contents of the data centre. Virtualisation has the ability to simplify backup, archiving and data recovery tasks, but if users attempt to take short-cuts, problems can emerge further down the line. Crucially, firms must obtain storage systems with sufficient capacity to cope with the flexible environment virtual servers allow.

A recent report from analyst firm Forrester Research argued that virtualised storage has an important role to play in the revamping of business IT systems as a whole. The firm said that, given the importance of data security in business, it is a key part of maximising the benefits of any virtualisation project. However, the firm suggested that many companies have experienced difficulties implementing virtualised storage techniques - alluding to a need for expert professional support when overhauling legacy systems.

Andrew Reichman, Forrester analyst and author of the Storage Choices for Virtual Server Environments report, said that while virtual server technology is "a unifying technology" in IT infrastructure around the world, storage remains a complicated aspect of deployments. And as maturity increases, and more critical production applications are deployed virtually, so does the pressure on businesses to get their architecture right.

"It's important to remember that the benefits of server virtualisation are dependent on each element of infrastructure that goes into the environment," Mr Reichman said. As a consequence, he urged infrastructure and operations professionals to re-evaluate vendor choices based upon the aims of their project. He explained that single-sourcing is advisable where possible, for the sake of operational simplicity, while alternative storage protocols such as NFS can represent cheaper, more efficient alternatives to Fibre Channel. The expert said that many organisations are working towards server consolidation and simplification, eager to gain efficiencies from their IT rather than simply make it work.

Modern organisations cannot afford to take chances with their data, particularly that belonging to consumers. The loss of information can cause untold reputational damage for businesses, with consumers particularly conscious of online fraud risks in the digital age. Organisations can face hefty fines for misplaced consumer information, adding to their woes. This is something for all businesses, both in the UK and abroad, to consider as they contemplate virtualising their storage infrastructure.

But moves towards a virtualised data centre will continue nonetheless. Michelle Bailey, research vice-president of datacentre trends at IDC, said that over the last year, the widespread adoption of virtualisation has been witnessed in both mature and emerging regions. The technology is finding a market beyond the traditional western powerhouses, but it is clearly financial considerations - rather than storage simplicity - which is driving increased uptake.

As Ms Bailey explained, the recession affected data centres across all geographies, and this has encouraged IT buyers to turn to technology which can help reduce short-term capital costs. Virtual servers very much fit the bill. "Looking ahead, the most successful vendors in the virtualisation market will be those that can automate the management of an ever-escalating installed base of virtual machines as well as provide a platform for long-term innovation."