Virtualisation appeals to IT executives looking to maximise data centre operations, but they must ask themselves 10 difficult questions before rolling virtualisation out to successfully adopt the technology, industry watchers say.

Enterprise Management Associates this week released its collection of "Top 10 questions to ask before any virtualisation project." According to EMA senior analyst Andi Mann, the list starts with the basics around existing skill sets and quickly moves on to technical hurdles of which every IT organisation should be aware. The benefits of abstracting software away from hardware to create a flexible, dynamic environment are compelling, but successful adoption depends on having the right skills, security and management tools and business drivers in place.

"In some cases, the technology is not ready, or the returns will not be sufficient, to embark on such a major change in technology, architecture and process," Mann writes. "Virtualisation should not be rushed. It is a long-term opportunity, and enterprises that approach virtualisation carefully as a strategy, not just a project, will be better positioned to benefit in the long run."

Here are the key questions to ask before embarking on an enterprise-wide virtualisation project.

1. Do you have the skills to support virtualisation?

EMA ranks the lack of "appropriate skills" as potentially the biggest barrier to successful virtualisation deployments. The research firm says about three-quarters of enterprise companies that don't yet have virtualisation in place believe they don't have the skills to support the technology. EMA recommends training staff before the technology is adopted, determining requirements, documenting expected changes and performing pilots of virtualisation technology in small sample environments.

2. Are you ready for the politics virtualisation could introduce?

The second pitfall is also related to the human element. Because IT departments have existed in siloed groups for years, IT executives could face pushback in their efforts to win mainstream acceptance of virtualisation technology, EMA says. For instance, some groups may not wish to share server resources, and for that reason, EMA recommends organisations put in reporting tools to show how virtualisation is either helping performance or at the least not hurting departments by sharing resources among them.

3. Have you considered and can you accept the risks?

Virtualisation technology reduces the amount of physical resources needed to support multiple systems and applications. But at the same time, it "concentrates more users and applications on fewer, more complex, shared virtual environments," the EMA report reads, and because of that, "the impact of hardware failure, human errors, security breaches, planning problems, support issues and more are vastly magnified in a virtual environment." Among its suggestions, the research group recommends enterprise companies develop detailed business continuity and disaster-recovery plans at all stages of the virtualisation project.

4. How will your security systems hold up?

Virtualisation can introduce more security holes, more forms of malware and more vulnerabilities than many organisations are prepared to tackle -- mostly because today's technology isn't yet equipped to deal with the new threats. Such security issues as hypervisor infections, rootkit viruses and malicious virtual machines can "be virtually undetectable with current tools," EMA says. IT executives must secure virtual machines as the do physical machines, and take extra steps to ensure the virtual environment is locked down. "Technology and disciplines for discovery, configuration, change management and more become critical to detecting virtual malware," the report reads.

5. Do you have compatible systems and applications?

Some applications and systems do not mesh well with virtualisation. For instance, EMA cites applications with "highly efficient usage, severe requirement spikes or continuously high utilisation of any resource." Also applications that interact directly with hardware will also stall a virtualisation project, the research firm says.

6. Do you have a capacity-planning discipline?

Virtual server sprawl is a common result of virtualisation deployments outgrowing their existing capacity. EMA recommends IT organisations use detailed capacity-planning measures to make sure they have sufficient hardware and software resources to support their virtualisation implementation and make sure it doesn't get out of control.

7. Is there support for your environments?

While many popular, packaged applications support virtualisation, many applications do not, EMA says. The research group recommends IT shops investigate which of their software and hardware platforms are supported and which might require them to upgrade before rolling out virtualisation.

8. Can your network support virtualisation?

Network and storage can represent potential bottlenecks for virtualisation in the data centre. For instance, virtualisation technologies that focus on the user, such as application or desktop virtualisation or application streaming, don't work well over low-bandwidth connections, EMA says. Enterprise IT managers can try to address network and storage limitations with WAN-optimisation technologies or by limiting the proliferation of images.

9. Can your management systems handle virtual environments?

While virtualisation reduces the number of physical resources to manage, it increases the complexity of the overall environment and introduces management issues that that could challenge some IT managers. For instance, the ease of deployment leads to a proliferation of virtual machines, or virtual server sprawl, which makes management exponentially more difficult. Also the added layer of software increases the complexity of managing the entire environment, EMA says. "Until management tools catch up with virtualisation, the key to success is having not just tools, but also strong process disciplines for discovery, performance management, configuration management, patch management, service-level management, provisioning, disaster recovery" and more, the report reads.

10. Does virtualisation help you address business objectives?

Perhaps the "most overlooked factor in the rush to virtualisation" is aligning the technology implementation with specific business goals, EMA says. To measure the success of a virtualisation rollout, enterprise IT shops must first know their desired results before deploying the technology. EMA recommends IT managers plan for long-term strategic results and not use virtualisation as a quick fix for a pressing pain point. For instance, while many organisations may consider cost savings a result of virtualisation, EMA reports that is not often the case.

"Overall, cost savings is not always the most likely outcome -- in fact, reduced costs (software, hardware and floor space) are the least expected outcomes. Despite the touted cost benefits of server consolidation, for example, it delivers only one-off cost savings, and the additional costs -- especially of software -- are often considerable," the report reads.