Virtualisation technology starts to mature

Virtualisation technology started as a way of making server rooms and data centres more efficient through consolidation. But that phase of the technology is passing, and other applications are coming to the fore, especially disaster recovery.

Consolidate your servers, vendors such as VMware said. And lo! Enterprises did just that , and found that it was good.

Well, mostly good anyway, apart from the money it cost in software licences, the extra management required for the additional machines, and the way that virtual machines have a habit of proliferating in a manner that physical ones just didn't, for obvious reasons. And apart from the way that it becomes tough to tell the marketing department that it can't have a new server instantly because it takes time, not to provision the server itself, but to check that there are enough licences available to cover the applications required, and then either upgrade the licence agreement or shuffle some budget around.

In practice of course, the benefits to be gained from virtualisation technology, as reported not just by vendors but also by real-world organisations, remain to be experienced by a huge number of companies. But most of the big ones have, I'm assured, at least a pilot or two up their sleeves, if not a number of full-blown projects behind them. The benefits are compelling.

So from a virtualisation vendor perspective, where next? Disaster recovery is a natural.

Disaster recovery has meant duplicating your infrastructure which becomes hugely expensive. And for most, doubling the server budget just in case something bad happens is not an easily sustainable position outside those industries where it's mandated by legislation; we're talking financials and pharmas here, for example.

Using virtualisation, you don't need to double up the hardware. Instead, you can buy a server whose spec allows it to swallow your physical servers by converting them to virtual machines. But on top of the hardware, you'll need some management software to ensure that the disaster recovery failover actually, happens, that restoring is seamless, and that the system can be easily tested without affecting the production system.

That's what Platespin launched last week. Its new product, Forge, uses a pre-packaged configuration of VMware's VI3 infrastructure, converting production servers into virtual machines inside the box.

Two things are interesting about this. Apart from the fact that it consists, according to Platespin's affable CEO Stephen Pollack anyway, of a disaster recovery system in a box that can do it all, it's Platespin's first hardware product. The company's been a long-time partner of VMware's and has managed, unlike many of its counterparts, to avoid being trodden on as the features list of VMware's flagship hypervisor expands ever outwards.

Until now, the company has sold VM management software but the Forge appliance consists of a re-purposed Dell server with 16GB RAM, six NICs and a pair of quad-cores running Platespin's software, which includes a VMware VI3 implementation plus a bunch of software for managing it as a disaster recovery system. All you need is a Web browser, according to Pollack.

While at around $50k the box is not exactly cheap, the hardware spec is not niggardly either. But Pollack insists that the system is worth it for the software integration. And if you need more storage than the standard 2.5TB, Pollack reckons the fact that it's a standard Dell server means you can open it up and throw some more cheap SATA disks in it. He also said that one of the benefits of using a Dell box is that Platespin doesn't have to carry inventory, with all the impact that can have on the bottom line -- which arguably feeds through to a lower price than might otherwise have been the case.

And best of all, it offers a feature called Failover Preparation. According to the company, this allows you to power up the recovery workload in a fenced-off network while the failure is confirmed. If it is, user can then go live on the new system, and if not, the system can be shut down without the production network being affected.

The second interesting element of the system is that it packages a number of products into a single appliance that's alleged to be plug and play. In other words, the fact that it uses virtualisation is less interesting than the benefits. While according to the vendors that's always been true, the technology itself does hold a fascination for those interested in the technology -- that surely means anyone on the implementation side of IT -- this system simply aims to do a particular job.

For the future, Pollack didn't rule out the possibility of selling the software separately as a virtual appliance.

Many organisations have yet fully to exploit the basic benefits of virtualisation. But the advent of this product suggests that vendors are thinking more along the lines of applications rather than technology. Such straws in the wind are signs of a maturing market. Expect more.