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Virtualization users buy beefy servers, SAN

Virtualization software is only the first of many things to consider when deploying virtualization in your data center. Depending on the project, you may need to upgrade your hardware infrastructure too.

As IT managers turn to server virtualization for consolidation and better availability, many are finding that they need to buy new hardware to get the full benefit of the technology.

That's what happened at Batteries Plus, a Hartland, Wis., franchise battery retailer with 450 stores in the United States. The company decided to virtualize its online point-of-sale application to prevent any site downtime during a crash or routine maintenance.

"We needed something that would give us full redundancy," said Josh Moore, the company's director of IT operations. "If there is single point of failure, we wanted something that would route around that."

Working with the consulting arm of CDW, an online systems retailer, Moore soon found out that if Batteries Plus wanted to have full redundancy of its site, the company would need an external storage area network (SAN). In an external SAN, several physical machines connect to the same SAN array, on which each virtual machine is stored as a separate file. Using the SAN and a VMware tool called Vmotion, Moore can move a VM from one physical machine to another.

"We knew we were going to have to buy new hardware for the SAN," said Moore. "And with our traditional servers we knew we would not be able to switch back and forth as quickly as we wanted to. So, in order for us to be able to get these servers back up and running quickly we had to buy new hardware."

But buying new hardware to run virtualization is not a must in every situation. Plenty of IT shops run virtualization on their existing hardware, especially in the early stages of trying out the technology.

Kentucky-based Baptist Healthcare System, Inc. began using virtualization as part of IT operations in 1998. Back then, Tom Taylor, the company's senior client and server infrastructure manager, used virtualization strictly for testing and development with existing hardware. But as virtualization became a more important part of the company's data center, new hardware became a priority too.

"When we do a physical-to-virtual operation now, we typically retire an old server," said Taylor. "Because we want to get the newest, fastest hardware we can, we don't reclaim any of our old hardware."

Baptist's data center is now hosting 225 VMs using VMware's ESX server on just 15 physical servers. Taylor is using a mix of Hewlett Packard Corp.'s 380 and 580 server models, which have 16 gigabytes and 32 gigabytes of RAM respectively. For his next virtual server, Taylor is planning to use an HP 585 model server with four-way AMD Opteron dual core processing.

"Our ESX servers are beefy," said Taylor. "They are maxed out at capacity for memory."

Chipmakers Intel Corp. and AMD Inc. hope to give virtualization users one more reason to upgrade their servers. Both companies offer new chip designs that specifically enhance virtualization. The technology, called Intel VT and AMD-V, encodes the virtualization process at the hardware level and defines the characteristics of each VM, including processor, memory and IO resources. The result, according to the vendors, is improved virtualization software performance.

"These processors may be an impetus to make the decision to replace a server earlier than usual," said Richard Partridge a senior analyst with Ideas International in Rye Brook, N.Y.

But other industry analysts say it will be a while before the processors are considered a priority purchase.

"I don't like to over rate them because I think they are just a step in the virtualization maturity process," said John Enck, a research vice president with Gartner Research in Stamford, Conn. Enck thinks it will take at least three to five years and a third-generation release of the processors to see the real impact of these chips.

Louis Foler, a systems engineer with CDW who helped Batteries Plus with its virtual migration, echoed Enck's opinion about virtualization-enhanced processors.

"I think it's still too early to see what kind of an impact these chips are going to have," said Foler. "My customers aren't asking about them at this point."

Ultimately, the rise of virtualization could lead to a decline in server sales. Enck noted that IT departments consolidating with virtualization require fewer physical servers in the data center of the future.

"This may represent an initial spike and then eventual decline," he said.

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