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Virtualization in the Enterprise

User feedback from enterprise-level virtualization

I spent last week at the annual IBM IMPACT event, and had a lot of great conversation with enterprise users about some of the transformations taking place in the IT industry. Most of my conversations focused on virtualization and the broader cloud computing architectural shift, and many of these conversations reminded me of how early in this journey we still are. Many enterprise users are still very much in the "toes in the water" phase when it comes to cloud computing. Specifically, that phase is somewhere between assessing the business value and working out a prototype for the organization.

While it is clear that cloud computing is still steadily emerging, it is equally clear that enterprises have embraced virtualization whole-heartedly. In this sense, I am not talking about mainframe virtualization that enterprises have relied on for years. I am talking about higher value virtualization techniques that encompass application infrastructure and applications as the unit of work.

In some cases, these enterprise users invested quite a bit of time and resource to build up a stockpile of virtual images for use in the organization. In other cases, the users consume vendor-supplied virtualization artifacts. Either way, some common themes and questions pop up in just about all of these conversations:

-         How do I manage this new virtual environment?

o       One of the chief benefits of virtualization is that it enables the construction of meaningful environments in a very simple and rapid manner. Unfortunately, this benefit has a downside. Since it is so easy and fast to spin up environments, virtualization usually results in more deployed environments than ever. This can result in overburdened administrators who must attempt to discern which environments are currently in use, determine the licensing impacts of all in-use deployments, and much more. Users are keen for solutions that not only enable virtualization, but also provide management capabilities that make the enterprise-level use of such virtualization tenable.

-         I like the idea of virtualization, but not at the expense of customization control.

o       You will not find many who dispute the technical merits and benefits of a virtualized approach. However, that does not mean they are willing to adopt the approach if it means sacrificing customization controls they have in their natively installed environments. Enterprise users must retain control of the software components within the virtual package. Solutions that enable customization to each piece of said package will prove more valuable than those that treat the image as a locked black box.

-         I need choice.

o       This applies mostly to the scenario when vendors supply virtual packages to enterprise users. In this case, the vendor is shipping a pre-configured, pre-installed set of software that can sometimes encompass an entire software stack (i.e. OS through application middleware). In this case, users demand choice with respect to what kind and versions of software components ship in the package. From a vendor's standpoint, there is no way they could ever ship enough permutations to meet all users' needs, so the package needs to be sufficiently componentized to allow the exchange of one component version/type in favor of another. To accompany such componentization, users need tools that make the task of reconstructing the virtual package simple and streamlined.

-         Remember that this approach cuts across multiple teams.

o       As nice as it is to have complete, functional software stacks in a virtual image, users constantly reminded me of the challenges they face to employ such a solution. Take for instance an image that encapsulates an application middleware stack, from the OS right up to the middleware. Typically, this means at least three distinct teams (operating system, middleware, and application) will be involved/interested in the package. This does not even take into account the infrastructure team that sets up the resources on which the virtual machines will eventually run. While most users do not see the challenge as insurmountable, it is something vendors need to embrace and take into account when designing and delivering solutions.

Virtualization is a fun space to watch evolve in the enterprise because it is going to be a key technical enabler of the overall cloud computing movement. The questions and discussion points I consistently came across last week only serve to reinforce the fact that enterprise activity and interest is real. The problems and challenges are also real, and vendors must work with enterprises to overcome these and make advanced virtualization part of the mainstream in enterprise IT.

More Stories By Dustin Amrhein

Dustin Amrhein joined IBM as a member of the development team for WebSphere Application Server. While in that position, he worked on the development of Web services infrastructure and Web services programming models. In his current role, Dustin is a technical specialist for cloud, mobile, and data grid technology in IBM's WebSphere portfolio. He blogs at http://dustinamrhein.ulitzer.com. You can follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/damrhein.

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