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Reasons to virtualize your last physical holdouts

There are no shortages of compelling reasons to virtualize, but some applications present unique licensing challenges.

It's rare to hear of a large organization that hasn't virtualized at least a portion of their servers, but it's even more rare to hear of companies that have virtualized everything. Many are understandably hesitant to virtualize large or mission-critical applications, but are these fears warranted? This month, our Advisory Board members take a look at applications most likely to be running on physical servers and ask whether the reasons to virtualize outweigh the potential challenges.

Brian Kirsch, Milwaukee Area Technical College

Virtualization has so many benefits it becomes hard to understand why an organization would not virtualize all of its servers. However, often times several servers or critical production applications are not virtualized for a variety of reasons. Let's break this down:

The application needs high performance and can't be virtualized
This one is often the excuse of many that refuse to look at or consider virtualization. These "server huggers" prefer blinking lights and the peace of knowing their application is safe on dedicated hardware.

However, today's virtualization platforms have the ability to scale up to staggering virtual hardware numbers. VMware vSphere 6 supports 128 virtual CPUs, 4 TB of memory and 62 TB of disk. Does their application really need more than that? These administrators and the applications they support are going the way of the dinosaur; keep an eye out for falling meteorites because a big one is coming.

My vendor does not support virtualization
This was a common argument in years past and has gone the way of the dodo, with one main exception: Oracle. In fact, many vendors prefer virtualization because it removes the hardware configuration concerns. Any vendor still holding on to this mind-set (ah-hem, Oracle) might want to watch skyward for falling meteorites as well. Sticking your virtual head in the sand with this one will bring alternative options that do bring virtualization into focus.

Virtualization just costs too much and I am too small
Now this one does have some merit, as virtualization is normally a capital investment with a payoff that takes some time to realize. Buying the infrastructure to virtualize a single server is very cost prohibitive, but it can be mitigated a few ways. Using local storage rather than a SAN while starting out is a great cost-saving method. Products from VMware and Microsoft do have free and low-cost options to get you started and give you the ability to grow into a more expensive infrastructure if needed.

Virtualization is just too complex to buy, install and support
When we break this one down it becomes an ugly truth. Buying a virtualization product is complex for small and enterprise businesses alike. Product name changes, complex packaging and licensing come together to confuse even the most seasoned IT personnel. There is no getting around this one, and it doesn't seem to be getting any better. The bright side is that installation and support are similar to many IT-related projects. The software is often straightforward and you can find great technical and community support -- once you figure out what you need.

In the end, it is always possible to find a reason not to virtualize. There are valid concerns, including the initial costs and complexity, but they should not be insurmountable barriers. Virtualization is an evolutionary change that is here to stay and the folks that choose to ignore it may soon be extinct.

Maish Saidel-Keesing, Cisco Video Technologies Israel

Anything can be virtualized, or I should say everything should be virtualized. There is no workload that cannot run as a VM.

The question, of course, is one of a cost-effectiveness analysis on these monster applications. Is it worthwhile to run an application in a VM that will practically take up a whole physical server? Why not just let it use the whole server and its hardware?

I do think that even in such a case, the operational benefits of running a huge workload -- such as a VM -- outweigh the fears or other considerations of going to bare metal. The provisioning, monitoring, backup and replication of a physical server may be different than the organizational procedures for all of your other virtual workloads. This can have significant overhead, which translates into more bottom-line costs.

The only things that cannot be virtualized are workloads that require specific proprietary hardware devices. But, even that today, is becoming less and less common. Organizations are looking for as much flexibility as possible and are looking at the cloud as a possible solution to their problems. Proprietary hardware does not fit into that model, and vendors are beginning to realize this. Therefore, the number of hardware-bound workloads has diminished almost to nothing.

Everything should be virtualized.

Rob McShinsky, Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center

Overall, virtualization has become a mainstream, accepted technology. Looking strictly at what workloads "could" be virtualized based on their raw resource needs, you will find very few workloads do not fit within what modern hypervisors can deliver. How these workloads are implemented and which ones are commonly considered good candidates varies mostly on an internal cost and comfort benefit analysis of the organization. VM-to-host ratio used to be the benchmark determining your cost savings over buying new physical servers, but these days, manageability has become a bigger factor. Now you are seeing a broad mixture of VMs with various resource requirements, a reduction of VM-to-host ratios, but an easing administration of larger workloads.

For mission critical applications, which some see as risky candidates for virtualization, modern hypervisors are more than capable. A great example of this is Epic, a healthcare software vendor. Epic is a major player in the medical record landscape, whose software manages every component of a health organization. It is tested and approved to run on VMware and Hyper-V. You still need to design and build your virtual environment correctly, feeding it the correct resources and provide redundancy in your design, but in a hospital or clinical setting, there is nothing more critical to your business than your electronic health records.

Are there still some workloads you may want to keep out of a virtual environment? Yes. Common ones include big data workloads using petabytes of storage and workloads that still have licensing barriers in a virtualization environment. Some databases, such as Microsoft SQL Standard Edition, still have licensing models that make it appealing to load up multiple instances onto a pair of physical servers and pay per processor or core. Paying attention to your cost and performance metrics is important in these cases.

My point is, unless you are a virtualization zealot, cost and comfort still play a big roll on what workloads are virtualized today. Reaching 100% virtualization should not be your goal, even with its many benefits. Working toward that number and getting past many of the unfounded psychological barriers to greater adoption within your private cloud should be the goal, because the concept of external clouds is already here.

Next Steps

Career advice to keep your virtualization skills up to date

Factors to consider beforevirtualizing mission-critical apps

How to virtualize even critical workloads

This was last published in June 2015

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Are you still skeptical about virtualizing every workload?
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Virtualization provides for greater flexibility and elasticity, but there are still physical constraints. For example, VNFs still need to be certified, requiring exhaustive testing, and the time needed to do that is more or less the same as with PNFs, especially for services that require high reliability and performance. Secondly, software forwarding of packets, even with tricks like DPDK, will never catch up with hardware forwarding, especially as Moore's Law continues to be a reality in the Quantum Computing space. In fact, Quantum Computing may exceed Moore's Law which is based on chip technology. So why would an business abandon physical platforms if they provide the reliability and performance that software just cannot achieve?
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