The recession may have forced Media General Inc. to scale back its grand plans for server virtualization in 2009, but like many other businesses, the communications company is planning a major push to make up lost ground this year. "Pretty much everything is being virtualized," says Mike Miller, director of information security, who oversees virtualization and server standards.
Media General has already consolidated by converting 250 servers into virtual machines running on 19 physical machines. Miller says he hopes to convert a big chunk of the other 400 servers this year. Other IT executives say they're ramping up virtualization efforts of their own. As virtualization hits the tipping point, it's redefining server requirements for 2010.
In Computerworld's 2010 Forecast survey, 64% of 312 professionals polled said that their organizations are likely or very likely to virtualize more servers in 2010. How many more? Gartner Inc. estimates that 55% of all new workloads will be deployed on virtual servers this year, up from 40% in 2009. The research firm predicts that by the end of this year, 24% of all workloads will be running virtually. Overall, IDC projects server shipments to hit 6.9 million this year, about 6% higher than in 2009 but 16% lower than in 2008, when shipments peaked at 8.1 million. Because of virtualization, servers shipping this year will be more heavily configured than they were in the past, especially with respect to memory, says IDC analyst Daniel Harrington.
What IT Wants
To host those virtual servers, users are demanding physical servers with faster processors, more memory, and expanded network and storage I/O capacity. As a result, vendors say they are seeing servers go out the door with every processor and memory socket filled.
Miller says traditional roadblocks to virtualization, such as storage and network I/O bottlenecks, have largely been addressed, so he's moving his Citrix servers, Microsoft Exchange mail servers and SQL Server applications into virtual machines. "There's nothing that's off-limits," he says.
At Qualcomm Inc., IT staff manager David Hewett will be shopping for processor technologies that will enhance virtual server performance. The company plans to purchase dense blade servers as well as rack-mounted servers this year. Hewett says Qualcomm is looking at 16-core Niagara processors from Sun Microsystems with 256 threads per chip, as well as servers built using upcoming six- and eight-core Intel Xeon Nehalem-EX processors.
Other organizations are buying new servers to host virtual desktops. In Seminole County, Fla., the county government is halfway done migrating 197 physical servers to VMware virtual machines running on four-socket, eight-core HP blades. The county also plans to start virtualizing desktops on a similar hardware platform that runs VMware Inc.'s vSphere with "zero client" endpoint devices from Pano Logic Inc. "We're trying to push as much support back into the data center as we can," says Robert Beach, the county's director of IT services.
Last year, Media General bought rack-mounted servers equipped with dual-socket, quad-core processors loaded with 48GB of RAM for just under $5,000 -- Miller's pricing "sweet spot." Those systems can host 30 to 40 virtual servers. This year, Miller plans to buy six-core, dual-socket servers with 64GB of RAM that will support 50 virtual machines -- for the same price.
Miller is "probably right" about how much he'll spend, says Paul Prince, chief technology officer of the enterprise product group at Dell Inc. The biggest trends for 2010, he says, will be more memory, faster processors and more aggressive I/O. Prince also says he expects to see a higher demand for blade servers, a popular consolidation platform. But he warns that as IT moves from 20 virtual servers per physical machine to 30, 50, 100 or more, availability requirements start to rise -- and that may force people like Miller to either spread out the load or move beyond that $5,000 sweet spot to higher-end systems with more robust memory subsystems and other high-availability features. Technically, a dual-socket system designed around Intel Corp.'s Westmere chip will be capable of supporting 100 virtual machines. But will you want to go there? "At some point, you have to ask yourself how many eggs you want in one basket," Prince says.
Online brokerage Scottrade Inc. is virtualizing its front-end 1U servers and migrating them onto server blades. "We've gone to full-blown virtualization, especially on our front ends, and we see the expansion of that continuing," says CIO Ian Patterson. As a host for virtual machines, blade servers are on par with what 1U systems can offer, he says. "The chips are faster, performance of the backplane and chassis throughput is faster," says Patterson. The reduced latency and improved throughput within the blade server chassis was a critical factor in Scottrade's decision to move from 1U servers to blades.
But the servers that power the brokerage's "ticker plant," which handles trades, are still 1U models -- for now. "We use the biggest boxes Dell has," Patterson says. Each 1U server is maxed out with memory and processors, and that's still not enough. "We're looking at re-evaluating how we do that, because of speed and latency issues," he says. "When you grow [to] over 200 servers, you have to think, is there a better mousetrap?" One option Patterson considered was building Scottrade's software algorithms into the firmware to boost performance.
Many organizations with high-performance computing needs rely on InfiniBand as a high-speed, low-latency interconnect between servers. That might change, says Prince. As prices come down and the technology moves into the mainstream, he expects the use of 10 Gigabit Ethernet in high-performance environments to gather steam. "If you're an InfiniBand shop, now may be the time to move to Ethernet," he says.
Return to Green
Green IT fell victim to budget cuts in 2009, with organizations focused on improving energy efficiency acting only when they were running out of power or cooling capacity in the data center. If it cost extra, IT wasn't buying. Prince says that Dell's small and midsize business customers have hesitated to pay extra to buy Energy Star-rated products.
In the enterprise, it's all about data center real estate, and server consolidation projects enabled by virtualization are opening up floor space, says Rocky Bonecutter, managing partner at Accenture Ltd. If a rack full of high-density servers is too hot or there aren't enough power cables to a rack to fully load it with servers, data center administrators typically spread them out a bit. But energy efficiency is coming back into focus this year. "There's a renewed interest in sustainability," says Bonecutter.
Energy efficiency is a big concern for Jai Chanani, director of technical services at Rent-A-Center Inc. He's consolidating through virtualization, and he's partially filling some racks. But, he says, "we want to make sure we're using power efficiently because of the cost." He's looking for features such as intelligent power management and power-saving hardware such as the variable-speed cooling fans used on his HP BladeSystem c-Class server blades.
Lorraine Bartlett, vice president of business-critical systems at Hewlett-Packard Co., says the vendor will continue to focus on energy efficiency and cooling requirements this year. In the mission-critical server area, HP moved its NonStop servers to a blade architecture last year. That doubled performance, cut the footprint in half and kept energy use in check -- but it also increased power density, which means more heat in a smaller space. This year, NonStop systems built around Intel's Itanium Tukwila processor will offer 25% better performance while using 25% less power, Bartlett says.
Limited by Licensing
James Fortner, general manager of IT infrastructure and corporate real estate for the global business services division of The Procter & Gamble Co., says P&G is migrating all of its mission-critical systems to a hosted data center operated by HP in Atlanta. (P&G has outsourced most of its IT operations to HP.) P&G wants best-in-class disaster recovery, and it wants all of its critical servers to be backed by service-level agreements that require vendors to respond within two hours if there's a problem. "That's the No. 1 project this year," says Fortner.
Virtualization and Itanium-based blades are part of that strategy, says Steve Lutz, vice president and general manager at HP. "You'll see us dealing with more power density to compute power in each blade and better virtualization at the chip level," Lutz says. What's slowing the process, he says, is the inability of enterprise software vendors like Oracle Corp. and SAP AG to formally support virtualization and optimize their software to take full advantage of virtualization's capabilities.
"Vendors do not have an explicit policy for supporting virtual machines yet," adds Gartner analyst Tom Bittman.
Software licenses based on the total number of processors are also placing limits on which applications can be consolidated onto multiprocessor servers. "This forces users to go with dual-processor systems," Bittman says. IDC predicts a relative increase in shipments of two-processor servers in 2010, with four-processor servers continuing to account for 5% to 6% of all shipments. Bittman's advice: "Don't go to large servers unless you know it won't raise your licensing costs." However, some vendors, including Microsoft Corp. and Citrix Systems Inc., have changed their licensing models to accommodate virtual machines.
So far, licensing issues haven't held back Media General. "We've lucked out in that all the applications we've done so far are licensed on a per-server or a per-user basis and ... the vendor doesn't care whether it's physical or virtual," Miller says. But he's still sticking with dual-socket systems. Four- or eight-socket systems concentrate too much power and too many virtual machines into too small of a space for his taste. "That makes me nervous. I like spreading out the load," he says. Nonetheless, licensing costs are still a big issue. For every $5,000 Miller spends on a server, he spends another $7,000 on infrastructure software, such as Windows Server, backup software and VMware.
With budget pressures still a concern, IT departments will remain intently focused on virtualization and consolidation. "I want to reduce my count," says Beach. "We don't see anything that limits us technologywise."