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Is it worth virtualizing unified communications servers?

There are few technical barriers standing the way of virtualizing unified communications environments, but there also doesn’t seem to be much market interest in doing so at the moment.

Users today acknowledge that most communications servers, among the last bastions of virtualization-resistant applications, will probably work with virtualization. In fact, those who run aggressively “virtualization first” shops have also found that communications application vendors are amenable to virtualization, provided the user can demonstrate the app running virtualized in a environment.

According to Chris Rima, supervisor of infrastructure systems for a utility in the Southwest, that’s how his shop virtualized all but two of 14 servers associated with Avaya Inc.’s Contact Center Management Server (CCMS) and Witness Workforce Optimization apps run on VMware, saving the company close to $100,000.

The two servers not being virtualized are doing real-time call recording; Rima said his organization still might have pushed for virtualizing those servers as well, but the project schedule wouldn’t allow it. “We have no data showing that virtualization wouldn’t have worked on the speech servers,” he said.

For some types of communications servers, there are technical limitations that have yet to be addressed, Rima acknowledged. For example, the T1 cards used by communications servers install drivers at the microprocessor’s “ring zero”, which is where the VMware bare-metal hypervisor also resides. As a result, VMware’s hypervisor doesn’t currently address such hardware, Rima said.

In general, however, even for communications servers without T1 lines in, shops like Rima’s still seem to be on the bleeding edge.

For one thing, some users place unified / consolidated applications somewhere low on the priority list near ever-evolving disaster recovery initiatives. Rob McShinsky, a senior systems engineer for Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H., has an environment virtualized with Microsoft’s Hyper-V; Microsoft is also one of the major unified communications vendors. But McShinsky said consolidating and unifying communications such as email and telephony, never mind virtualizing them, have taken a back seat to other priorities. “Every so often we’ll think, ‘Yes, we should do something about it,’ but nothing has taken hold yet,” he said.

In fact, Rima doesn’t count his shop as doing “true” unified communications yet, in which email, IM and other forms of messaging are consolidated onto the same network as IP telephony. “We have virtualized a good chunk of our Avaya, Verint and Nuance software,” he wrote in an email. “We also have virtualized our Exchange environment, but we don’t have true UC enabled between our Cisco VoIP infrastructure and Exchange/LCS yet. The two vendors still don’t play well together and they have their own solutions, but neither of them really give you everything you want, and neither of them are fully baked in our opinion.”

Even amid talk in the industry about virtualizing mission-critical applications, when unified communications projects are undertaken, users say virtualization isn’t necessarily within scope, since unified communications apps are often offered on an appliance or bundle of appliances.

“Solution-wise…you can get a [unified communications] server from Microsoft or similar appliance of some sort that you can buy with a bundle, which will support more than enough users -– between 1 and 5,000 users from start to finish, including messaging, recording and so on,” said Maish Saidel-Keesing, virtualization administrator for a technology company in Israel. “When someone buys a solution like that … they prefer to buy one bundle … [and not] worry about whether to put it on a VM.”

Meanwhile, however, vendors like Avaya and VMware have made clear through recent initiatives that the network is in their sights as “the next generation of virtualization,” as Steve Bandrowczack, vice president and general manager of Avaya Data Solutions, put it.

Avaya launched an initiative called Virtual Enterprise Network Architecture (VENA) in November, aimed at “flattening” Layer 2 networks to abstract the delivery of services across geographic locations. VMware has also been hard at work on this problem, given its implications for fluid migration of workloads in private, public and hybrid clouds. VMware has also previewed plans to create a management layer for such virtualized network devices at the most recent VMworld, under the codename vChassis.

Bandrowczack said Avaya is looking to partner with VMware on such a project. “Where they hand off, we’ll pick up.”

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