Virtualization has moved beyond being an experimental tech concept; it is now a mainstream component in desktop infrastructures and data centers. In fact, virtual technologies have become an integral part of modern IT systems. But while virtualization is considered a key to managing and running projects smoothly, roadblocks are also part of the package. And, while virtual technologies provide many benefits, the realization of these benefits is not a given. Here we take a look at virtualization and what IT can do to get the most out of this technology. (For background reading, see Top 3 Reasons to Use Remote Management Software.)

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Virtualization: From Past to Present

Virtualization was introduced to the tech industry in the 1960s in an effort to help organizations attain enhanced utilization, cost-effectiveness and flexibility in computing environments. Launched by IBM, virtualization then was centered on the partitioning of massive and costly mainframe systems into separate virtual machines capable of running multiple processes or applications.

In the decades that followed, the mainframe computing model that virtualization brought about evolved into a client-server model, on which low-cost servers and desktops could operate specific and independent applications. Over the years, virtualization has proved to be an indispensable component in IT organizations that are seeking to enhance the management of a manifold of desktops and servers.

The Benefits of Going Virtual

Besides its essential virtual partitioning purpose, virtualization has embraced various aspects of server, network and application management. Virtualization solutions help pool various physical resources into one virtual resource, as in the case of network storage virtualization, which paves the way for a more efficient control and management of such resources.

The decision to go virtual has clear benefits for IT organizations, and the biggest virtualization advantage has to do with savings. In most cases, IT companies operate a single application per server to avoid the risk of crashing and its domino effect. Server virtualization enables an otherwise single-purpose server to multitask, while turning multiple servers into a single pool with enhanced workload flexibility.

Because virtualization essentially offers a necessary reduction in the number of physical servers, energy consumption is reduced. Moreover, fewer servers will consequently mean fewer manual tasks, such as server maintenance. The chores of backing up, archiving and recovering data, as well as deploying applications, also becomes easier and quicker. As a result, organizations are able to shift their focus to other significant aspects of their overall operations.

Because going virtual is seen as a legitimate strategy toward achieving streamlined desktop and server management, many virtualization solution vendors such as Microsoft, VMWare, IBM, RedHat and Citrix, among many others, have made a mark in the industry.

Virtualization's Challenges

Years after virtualization took off and made its mark as an essential component in IT enterprises and organizations, this technology continues to be plagued by a few key issues.

With virtualization in place, the tech industry is expected to offer a competitive advantage to stakeholders. At the same time, data center managers are likely to deal with upfront investment, manage tightly allocated budgets, and expect constraints in future capital expenditures. Strict adherence to IT standards and compliance with industry and government regulations cannot be simply ignored.

Application administrators, on the other hand, are required to be highly skilled when it comes to production environment replication, software or patch deployment, thorough system testing, and the shift from application to production. Because the procedure is complex, to say the least, automation tools and tech support definitely come in handy.

As for infrastructure administrators, the primary task is in the consolidation of management's view of the virtual data center. Because seamless multiple-site integration is not possible, administrators face the challenge of handling the agile virtual data center. By opting for virtualization, IT infrastructure managers run the risk of a proprietary lock-in.

But despite the many hurdles that come with the virtualization package, the technology continues to be a key component in efforts to scale data centers. In 2011, Gartner, a technology research and advisory company, predicted that virtualization will increase average server performance by at least 7% and up to as much as 50% by emphasizing savings in physical space and energy.

Implementing Virtualization: Best Practices

Adherence to best practices, which involves embracing methodologies and activities for outstanding results, can ensure efficiency and effectiveness in implementing virtualization technologies in an IT environment.

As with other environments, best practices in the virtualization arena - when effectively and efficiently adapted to address specific circumstances - can yield exceptional results. Needless to say, virtual systems and infrastructure require the application of practices in the same way as physical systems do. Here is a quick look at the basic best practices.

  1. Understand the benefits and drawbacks of a virtualized environment Virtualization plays a number of roles in IT organizations that need to be understood before deciding to migrate physical servers into virtual systems or to deploy virtualized servers.
  2. Take the role of each virtual system into account In the process of scoping out virtual system configurations, server and storage options need to be considered to prevent workloads from conflicting or from overstraining a host.
  3. Consider which components are required for a perfect scale-up IT organizations forget to take the components required to scale up to virtualization into account, including networks, host hardware, storage and a hypervisor.
  4. Back up virtual machines and systems Good backup procedures provide reliable results. Ensuring that rapid and reliable data recovery procedures are in place is a must as well.
  5. Don't Neglect Security Virtual systems are not invulnerable. Failing to recognize this, most organizations focus on the efficient management and patching of their physical systems with often blatant disregard for virtual servers. The truth is that virtualized systems call for proper management with a keen eye for patching and security from viruses and threats. An exact determination of an organization's security perimeter is also crucial. While often difficult to enforce, it pays to limit virtual machine proliferation and keep infrastructure security policies in place.

First, Do No Harm

By understanding what makes up an efficient virtual system or the sound deployment of virtual applications - while enforcing industry standard policies - IT organizations can reduce the risk of maintaining undervalued virtual machines that do more harm than good.