What does virtualisation technology mean for corporates, and how are its leading adopters putting virtualisation to work? More to the point, how can organisations of all sizes use virtualisation to change the way that they introduce and use IT to support their business processes?
HP has been a leading light in developing and promoting these technologies, so in the wake of its announcement last month of new virtualisation capabilities, we spoke to Peter Hindle, the company's UK enterprise solutions programme manager, to get his advice on where virtualisation will fit in the organisation of the future.
The big thrust for HP in recent years has been the adaptive enterprise, which is a map for the development of IT systems which automatically evolve and change alongside the business processes that they support. According to Hindle, virtualisation can support the adaptive enterprise by simplifying IT processes and making them easier to manage and integrate, and can also provide a way to deal with legacy apps - more importantly though, it is not just about technology.
"Virtualisation is a hot button at the moment, but it's what do you do with it? It's simplifying the environment and making it easier to manage," he says. "But to integrate it into the environment, you need to control it as well, so you need planning tools and automation tools as well, such as HP's Systems Insight Manager."
Standards are key
He adds, "A lot of virtualisation is around policies and standards. For example, HP used to have a plethora of knowledge management systems, and that meant we couldn't share knowledge. So standardising on a policy for knowledge management is really going to bring business benefits. If you don't impose standards, you just end up with a more consolidated dog's breakfast."
A vital part of the simplification and virtualisation process is consolidation. Bringing resources together means you have less to manage, then virtualising the technology involved means that the consolidated resources can cover your needs more cheaply.
Partitioning a single big server or storage pool allows it to be used for several different applications, say. For example, Hindle says HP's virtualisation granularity has reached the point where it can provision a virtual server using one-twentieth of a physical processor - formerly it was a minimum of one real CPU per partition.
"Consolidation has to be vertical and go across. It's got to be planned and have metrics, and you have got to have an idea of the base costs," he warns. "Where are we starting from? What does it really cost us to run this? A lot of it is just communication, you can't ignore all the other stuff.
"IT simplification is how do we get rid of redundant systems and hardware, and what do we do with them? People tend to keep a few 'just in case' - get rid of them! Unless you know they'll really be used for something useful."
Identify the problems early
He adds that that many challenges face the would-be consolidator, but if you anticipate them properly, you can deal with them. "Identify the IT inhibitors," he says. "Scope the problem, in people costs, equipment, integration. Make sure IT and business think they're going in the same direction - too often IT gets given a bag of bits and told to get on with it, so IT tends to get the blame when it goes wrong. But the biggest problem is a lack of communication and understanding - have you talked about the timescale and the business implications?
"Most importantly it's governance - someone owning the process across the business and IT. The real strength of the integrated approach is working together, with common tools across a range of platforms."
A big part of HP's adaptive enterprise story is making IT part of the business and treating as a service, the same as any other - after all, asks Hindle, why should IT be any different from HR or facilities management? All are just as important, and all are just as inseperable from how today's organisations are run. Most find that they have to digest this idea slowly, though.
"We are starting to see examples of shared services within organisations - that's the start of utility computing. It's a move from asset-based computing to service-based," Hindle says. "Some companies are taking a strategic corporate view to IT, so you can't see the join between the business and IT any more. There's very few of those though - in most it has to start in a silo."
Consolidation for your legacy apps
One other key use for virtualisation is as a way of consolidating legacy applications and bringing them under central control. It means that all those vulnerable local PC servers can be replaced by a smalller number of bigger machines, located in the data centre where they can be properly managed and backed up.
"The legacy problem is probably biggest with Windows," notes Hindle. "Lots of people have started to consolidate the data centre but there's lots of machines outside it, and some of those are now running business critical apps. VMWare is a good tool for that.
"In some cases you can't consolidate, though. There is an inertia aspect too - should I touch it? What service does it really provide to the business? In almost every data centre there is at least one box that no-one knows what it does. Sometimes you just have to turn it off and see if anyone notices."
He adds too that when it comes to business process reorganisation, there is always a danger that the desire for change spreads too far. Managers need to be careful that they do not impose consolidation or virtualisation when there are better - and simpler - ways to improve a business process.
"Not everything has to become adaptive," he says. "Some parts of the business might be absolutely stable, so there's no need for change. Automation is what takes the cost out, just like it did in factories years ago."
So how much of the consolidation and virtualisation story is about business benefits, and how much is about selling consultancy services that simply shift costs from one budget area to another? And if there are indeed genuine business benefits to be had, is it only large organisations which will gain them?
"At the high end, the strategic approach, absolutely there is consultancy involved," Hindle acknowledges. "A lot of it is stuff that needs to be done anyway, for example to understand the business process model and link IT into that. But I don't think it's just shifting money from one budget to another because the aim is to reduce the cost base."
He adds, "It's not just businesses with 1000+ staff that can benefit - virtualisation is spreading down through all levels. It something everyone can do, the benefits may be greater in the large environment but the problems are greater there too."