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Step-by-step virtualization: Avoiding the risks of free releases

Although free virtualization products are handy and benefit the industry, using them in the enterprise without proper planning could cause problems.

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Since the launch of VMware Player (the first free desktop virtualization solution) and Microsoft's decision to offer Virtual Server for free (making it the first free server virtualization solution), the IT world has not been the same. These events inspired a revolution in the industry's thinking on computing resources, and this will accelerate now that VMware Server 1.0 and Microsoft Virtual PC 2004 have been released as free products.

At this moment, the IT world is being shaken by two concurrent phenomena. First, the server virtualization technology itself is revolutionary; and second, virtualization is being offered for free before it even had the chance to become mainstream.

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New! Now you can read all of Allessandro's step-by-step guides in one place. Check out Alessandro Perilli's step-by-step virtualization guide.
  1. Identifying appropriate servers
    Retitled "Addressing all phases of adoption"
  2. Capacity planning
  3. ROI calculation
  4. P2V migration

    Although free virtualization can provide huge benefits for the whole industry, implementing it too fast could cause a lot of problems. In this article, I will examine the dangers of too-rapid adoption of free virtualization.

    The problem

    The problems that free virtualization could create depend mainly on three factors: technological complexity, its critical role in business and its ease of adoption.

    A virtualized data center involves new challenges, and the IT staff has to handle technical incompatibilities, performances penalties, lack of product support, interoperability and accountability, to name a few issues. IT professionals have not had enough time to develop expertise handling all of these problems as they pertain to the new scenario of virtualization. Many aspects of the technology still need to be fully understood, and IT professionals still need to collect a lot more experience before we can reach the confidence level we have today with physical servers.

    Desktop virtualization has a large diffusion but a limited impact on the way business services are offered, but server virtualization completely revolutionizes the approach to the data center in aspects that range from hardware purchasing to resource management. Desktop virtualization is a technology that companies can decide to forgo at any moment if it doesn't meet expectations, but server virtualization is a no-way-back adoption most of the time.

    The fact that today's free solutions were yesterday's commercial products, advertised as enterprise-grade solutions, implies that companies from small businesses to enterprises will embrace them, both because they carry no cost and because they are now trusted as reliable. When a desirable technology suddenly becomes free, masses of professionals approach it, with or without the necessary background knowledge.

    Where's the risk in this, you ask? The biggest one is for small and medium-sized companies that see free server virtualization as providing a big opportunity to reduce costs. In these situations, the time and budget allocated for IT staff training or outsourced consulting and for testing is small or nonexistent. What often happens is that technologies are thrown into production without the staff having the adequate skills and experience to handle them.

    Beside the technological complexity, multiple factors could compromise a virtualization project, including poor capacity planning, superficiality in host and guest operating systems' configuration, missing policies for virtual machines provisioning, lack of knowledge for needed third-party tools and poor investigation in supported configurations. All of these elements could lead to disappointing performance, virtual machine sprawl and increased efforts in management.

    Bad results will not only translate into extra money being required to correct deficiencies or revert back to physical servers but will also become a reason why companies stay away from virtualization -- believingif they perceive the technology to be less useful and reliable than they expected.

    At the end of the day, making a complex solution like server virtualization available at no cost could damage companies in the short and medium term.

    Future trends

    It looks pretty certain that server virtualization will remain free, extend to data-center-class solutions (now still a profitable part of the vendors' offerings) and become pervasive, being included in every operating system. The biggest contribution in this direction will arrive from Microsoft, which announced it will embed a new virtualization technology called Windows Server Virtualization inside upcoming versions of its server operating system, code-named Longhorn.

    Within two years or so, virtualization as a commodity will appear in millions of installations, becoming a de-facto standard in data center architectures.

    Investing in training or consulting is not just a way to ensure that free virtualization will deliver supposed benefits, but it's also a way to build knowledge and be ahead of the competition in the near future.


    Free virtualization may look like a simple technology that could solve complex problems, and this appearance might lead companies to underestimate the importance of an investment in training or outsourcing help. The reality is today's virtualization technology is very hard to handle and requires capabilities that the IT staff doesn't have. Companies planning to adopt free virtualization without the proper planning could face roadblocks at points in the migration that defy correction and make it such that reverting back to physical servers would result in big waste of money.

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