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Virtualization in the data center

Virtualization is a certainty for the data center. When it does arrive, the impact will be far-ranging, but no loss of jobs.

Virtualization is coming to the data center, and it will affect all data center gear, ranging from storage to the server. When it does arrive, it will cause jobs to be redefined and operations manuals to be revamped throughout corporate America.

"It absolutely is coming to the data center," says Mike Karp, senior analyst with Enterprise Management Associates in Boulder, Colo. "In fact, data centers are already adopting it."

Loosely defined, virtualization means treating several entities as one. This can include treating several different storage devices as one giant pool, or it can mean grouping different virtual partitions on multiple servers. The theme is consolidation, of servers and all things attached to them, to make it easier for data center personnel to manage their ever-increasing IT resources.

The real bottom-line benefit, though, is the ability to much more quickly deploy new applications and storage that the business needs to grow. "What are the implications of lost business when I can't react quickly?" asks Randy Kerns, a senior partner with the Evaluator Group in Denver. When one adds up the new opportunities, the total gained could be very impressive, he says.

A secondary advantage comes in better efficiencies -- using what you have much more wisely. And this, "ultimately, means a reduction in the amount of money" spent on storage and server hardware, Kerns says.

Most observers predict the technology will land on a large scale in anywhere from two to five years, depending on the industry and size of the customer. Financial services, telecommunications and health care companies will likely lead this curve. Tom Bittman, a research director at Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn., says that by next year, 20% of Fortune 1000 companies will be using virtualization tools for Windows servers.

The Enterprise Management Associates' Karp says that the adoption curve will be slow but steady. "It's sort of like storage area networks; people have to look at virtualization, kick the tires for a while and prototype it before they'll put business-critical systems on it."

Key competitors in the server virtualization space include VMware Inc. in Palo Alto, Calif., and Connectix Corp. in San Mateo, Calif. In mid-February, Microsoft acquired the Connectix products Virtual PC and Virtual Server, as well as many Connectix employees.

The main advantage to customers is the ability to run multiple operating environments on one physical server. Although partitioning has long existed in the mainframe world, this technology is now available for the workstation and PC communities.

When it comes to storage virtualization, the landscape is much more complex. There are dozens of vendors that offer virtualization software, hardware or some combination of the two. Most of the major systems houses, including Hewlett-Packard Co., IBM Corp. and Dell Computer Corp., provide this technology, as do almost all of the storage vendors, including EMC Corp.

Wherever it's applied, virtualization helps companies manage more IT resources without having to add personnel. And that is precisely why most industry watchers believe that most data center employees have nothing to fear from this technology. If anything, virtualization should kick skills and careers up a notch.

The Evaluator Group's Kerns says that, with the continuing growth of data and storage needs, virtualization pretty much guarantees that IT personnel will have more job security, because they'll be asked to manage ever-increasing amounts of storage.

In general, things on the IT staffing front are fairly stable. According to recent statistics from the Department of Labor, the number of IT jobs remained flat during the past 12 months, with about 2.19 million people working in the field. The Information Technology Association of America says much the same thing, saying that demand on the whole was up about 1% for all of 2002.

Nevertheless, managing more equipment with the same number of people isn't necessarily a good thing, Kerns maintains. "How much can one person effectively administer? That varies by the type of market," Kerns says. "But the reality is that if you're responsible for 2 terabytes of data, you're not actively managing all of that. Most of that you're just keeping from going into the chaos zone." It's the difference between proactively managing something versus just keeping it alive.

When virtualization hits seriously, Karp says, its impact on people will depend on several factors. First is the quality of the software involved -- how many tasks it automates and how well it does the job. The second is the willingness of management to re-train both junior and senior-level staffers. The third is the individual employee's willingness and ability to learn the new skills he will need.

In a perfect world, Karp explains, junior employees will take on the jobs now done by senior-level people. And the senior-level folks will be able to learn entirely new things. "In most data centers, there is a lot of stuff that falls between the cracks because nobody has time to get it done," he says. This can include everything from doing an inventory of hardware and software, to truly understanding where capacities are and what could be improved, to taking a "more strategic view of software, rather than having everything be event-driven."

This scenario, however, depends on IT executives viewing data center employees as an asset. "If they treat the data center staff as an expense," Karp says, then virtualization may indeed become "an opportunity to reduce head count."

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