Shawn P. McCarthy | The realities of virtualization

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Shawn P. McCarthy

Let's talk virtualization. Greatest thing since sliced bread? Or a marketing buzzword we're all sick of hearing?

A few issues ago in this column, I discussed the virtues and possible pitfalls of application virtualization for thin-client systems.

But virtualization applies to much more than that. I'm constantly reminded of the confusion the term generates by everything from user phone calls to the product announcements that land in my inbox each day.

So ' in an effort to clear up the confusion ' here are some things to keep in mind.
First, virtualization is not a specific technology. Government information technology managers should view it as multiple solutions that have the potential to facilitate resource savings via consolidation. Systems virtualization is basically a migration toward distributed computing that enables more effective use of an organization's available computing power.

Virtualization technologies can make a single physical resource appear to function as multiple logical resources ' such as disk or system partitions ' or they can make multiple physical resources function as a single logical resource ' such as a redundant array of independent network interfaces that merge several network access points into a unified, higher-bandwidth link.

But to take advantage of virtualization, government organizations often need to upgrade their IT infrastructures with strategic systems that enable virtualization technologies. Thus, it takes a long-term commitment to migrate to a virtualized infrastructure. Most organizations will see significant savings only if they can enable virtualization across a large enterprise.

Possible roadblocks to government systems virtualization include:
  • Inertia. Savings are more achievable when most of an agency's systems are virtualized, but getting started is expensive. Thus, departments with constrained budgets are happy to let others be the first out of the gate.
  • Lack of department-level incentive. Tradition dictates that departments are seldom given additional funding in a new budget following a year of savings.
  • Questions of interoperability. Some vendors offer proprietary, network-based virtualization solutions. Successful, cost-cutting virtualization, however, depends on the interoperability of the widest range of IT infrastructure components.

So when you evaluate a virtualization approach, it's best to use some specific return-on-investment calculations.
  • Establish a baseline of current costs, including the cost of doing nothing.
  • Determine what you will need to change to move toward virtualization. Include the costs of new hardware, software, network improvements, IT services or staffing changes, maintenance fees and anything else that applies.
  • Don't forget the licensing costs for the operating systems and applications. What is the impact of adding CPUs? Will multicore chips result in higher per-CPU licensing costs for your software?
  • Remember that government ROI calculations can also include improved citizen services, response times and security, so don't leave them out of the mix.

In short, consider what type of virtualization might be right for your organization, look at what parts of your infrastructure can be moved toward a virtual infrastructure, and calculate what sort of ROI you might be able to achieve. Only then will you be able to cut through the fog of virtualization buzzwords and understand if a virtualized system is right for you.

Shawn P. McCarthy is a senior analyst and program manager at IDC Government Insights, in McLean, Va. E-mail him at smccarthy@idc.com.

About the Author

Shawn McCarthy, a former writer for GCN, is senior analyst and program manager for government IT opportunities at IDC.

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