Wednesday, June 15, 2011

What is Virtualization?

One of the hottest new concepts in technology is called "virtualization".  You see the term in commercials, read it in magazines, and see it bandied around in magazine articles.  You might also hear about companies named "VM Ware", "Citrix", "IBM", "EMC", and probably the blue-chip names as well (IBM, HP, etc).  The pundits say that virtualization is the next big wave in IT, that it will save companies millions, and that it will change the footprint of the data center.

I know this topic is big because I am frequently asked to perform ad-hoc consulting to companies on Wall Street that are trying to find the next big "high riser" stock.  Many of the consultations I perform involve my having to give primers on the basics before getting to specific technology trends.

In a nutshell, there are roughly three different types of virtualization.  If you are an IT pro reading this blog, please refrain from correcting me! I know that the list could be described as much longer but, as per my handle ("Simple CIO"), I'm trying to keep it simple.

Server Virtualization -  Remember that IBM commercial where the guys in suits are freaking out because all of the machines in their server room are gone?  The tech guy smiles reassuringly and tells them to relax.  He has replaced all the numerous boxes with just one sitting in the middle of the server room.

In the old(er) days of IT, there was a one-to-one relationship between software programs (called "applications") and server boxes.  If you bought a new application, you bought a correspondingly server.  As you grew the number of applications the number of physical machines in the data center grew proportionally.  Fast forward 10 years and you've got a data center (or 2 or 3 or 7) stuffed full of servers.  These machines each need to be tended to like individual tomato plants - they need plenty of power, cooling, and human-rendered TLC.

With the advent of virtualization, an IT organization could buy one big (*really* big) server.  That server could be carved, or "partitioned", into numerous independent servers.  The catch is that all of this partitioning occurs within the brain of the big server.  So, 50 physical boxes are transformed into 50 "logical" boxes within the mind of the big server.  Lots of stuff is now happening on server administrator screens but to the outside viewer, 50 just became one...

Desktop Virtualization - This concept has a lot of similarities with server virtualization.  Again, in the old(er) days of IT, the brains for a PC or laptop would reside within the hardware sitting on or under your desk, or possibly on your laptop.  The problem with that setup is that each device has to be powerful enough to do everything you need, have "oodles" of memory, and a big fat hard drive.  And of course, with all of that dynamic hardware you need small armies of IT techs running around fixing machines, upgrading software, swapping computers, and convincing people not to download software from their favorite entertainment sites.

Fast forward to the past five years where desktop virtualization has become a hot item.  A virtualized desktop has had its brain, memory, and hard drive transported to a "big" server sitting somewhere in a data center that you can't see.  The look and feel, or "experience" of the desktop still looks the same.  However, what you see is being piped to your monitor/keyboard/mouse from somewhere else.  What you are seeing is essentially a web screen designed to look and work just like your old computer.  But IT is no longer having to maintain an ocean of equipment, software, and security.  Whatever you need is "granted" to you by a server administrator.  If you desktop isn't working, another push of a button gets you session automatically refreshed.  And by the way, since all of your files and programs are in the data center now, you'll never again lose any information when your hard drive crashes.

While the concept of desktop virtualization sounds a little like "Big Brother", there are all kinds of benefits.  IT becomes less of a black hole for budgeting and you get to start using the virtualization software to move your desktop functionality to an iPad.  Trust me, once you have your office computer ported to an iPad, you'll never want to go back.

Storage Virtualization - Remember the discussion on server virtualization?  Now think of hard drives everywhere within your company.  They are on PCs, servers, smart phones, laptops, everywhere!  Using equipment called a "SAN" (storage attached network) or "NAS" (network attached storage) companies essentially purchase big boxes full of very fast, very large, very reliable hard drives.  These SANs are almost always connected to your network with fiber-optic cables, which means that they can serve up data faster than McDonalds serves up burgers.

The whole concept of storage virtualization is that you can consolidate multiple, disparate hard drives from all over on to one centralized, turbo charged storage bank.  Really cool, really fast, really reliable, and saves a bunch of money over time.

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