Virtualize your machines, shrink your data center population
Virtualization and consolidation are nearly synonymous because virtualizing machines limits server needs
As a key technology in facilitating consolidation — perhaps the most important one during the early stages — virtualization has become a part of the core strategy that agencies devise for data consolidation programs.
Some have gone so far as to put a number to what that will be. For example, at the beginning of the year, the Navy put a moratorium on spending money on new server hardware and issued a set of goals for consolidation, which included a 25 percent cut in the number of data centers, an increase in server utilization use of at least 40 percent, and a minimum boost in server virtualization use of 50 percent.
The Army issued a similar directive a few months earlier.
Other agencies are going further. Brian McGrath, CIO of the Census Bureau, told Federal News Radio in May that his agency was instituting a virtualization-first policy in which new applications would be provided from a virtualized server rather than on a new piece of hardware.
That would save money and allow the agency “to transition our data centers from one of only servicing the Census Bureau to be in position to service and provide compute, store resources and cooling resources and secure resources for other government agencies," he said.
Server virtualization is the first and easiest path to consolidation because it’s been implemented for years in private industry and is a relatively well-known and well-understood practice. In addition, its effects are immediate and very visible. If you have a data center with 50 servers and another with 100 machines, by putting two virtual machines onto each of the servers in the first data center you can eliminate the second.
That effect is multiplied with modern blade server technology, in which numerous blades can occupy a chassis not much bigger than that of an older, single server. Also, the technology is faster and more powerful, so each server can be divided into more virtual machines. That also helps to cut down on server real estate and cooling demand.
The NASA Enterprise Application Competency Center provides applications and services at the Marshall Space Flight Center and for NASA overall. It has been virtualizing machines for a number of years. By the end of 2010, it had managed to reduce the floor space needed in the data center by around 60 percent, saving $250,000 on utility bills and avoiding some $5 million in infrastructure costs.
“Consolidation and virtualization are not necessarily synonymous, but they are almost so, and server utilization is the easiest path to follow right now,” said Jim Smid, data center practice director at Iron Bow Technologies. “But there’s also a shift on in how agencies do business, and they’re looking to put additional layers on top of server virtualization, such as desktop virtualization.”
Agencies are also looking at things such as storage virtualization, he said, an area that’s been less tapped but can provide benefits almost as great as those for server virtualization, “so it’s becoming more important for data center consolidation.”
Each of these kinds of virtualization have their own set of advantages. The best known form of desktop virtualization runs a unique version of an operating system on the server, offloading the operating system and data that would otherwise run on and be stored locally on a desktop computer. That leads to the possibility for using much cheaper thin clients and boosting security because everything that is vulnerable in a regular desktop computer is now contained in the data center.
Server virtualization is well along the road to ubiquitous deployment in data centers, said NetApp’s Mark Weber, and it’s a proven entity with a known ability to save organizations money. Desktop virtualization is still in its infancy. But storage virtualization has an interesting place now in data center consolidation.
“We used to need direct-to-cache or dedicated storage for applications, but the fact is you can’t have direct attached storage in a virtualized environment,” he said. “So storage has been a huge benefactor of the virtualization craze.”
However, agencies have to be careful with virtualization because not all applications and environments will benefit from it. Some high-performance applications could be severely degraded in a virtualized environment, and they will always need their own dedicated servers and storage. Because of that, most agencies may never have completely virtualized data centers.