Virtual Headaches

Storage virtualization is hot, and for good reason. But its benefits bring added layers of complexity.

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Headache 3: Scheduling Maintenance/Backups

Ron Rose, CIO at travel services company Priceline.com Inc., takes a holistic view of virtualization. In fact, he speaks of a "virtualization sandwich" consisting of integrated technologies for server virtualization, storage virtualization and server provisioning. He uses 3PAR InServ S400 and E200 tiered disk arrays for storage, BladeLogic tools for provisioning, and 3PAR Thin Provisioning and other products for virtualization.

Rose says most companies could reduce their server and storage footprints by 20% to 40% using a virtualization sandwich. "And not only are there cost savings; there are green benefits. It's good for the planet," he says.

But like most practitioners of storage virtualization, Rose says there is no free lunch. "You have to plan your architecture more thoroughly and look at all your applications. The more systems you have running on the box, for example, the more challenging it is to schedule maintenance. If you have 10 applications running on that chunk of infrastructure that you are going to do maintenance on, you have to schedule it and move the apps to other machines in an orderly manner."

He says 3PAR has powerful tools that can hide much of the complexity of virtualization, but the kind of maintenance scheduling needed "is not a system or tool issue; it's a process and discipline issue."

Similarly, ensuring reliability requires extra care, Rose says. "As with maintenance, you don't want to get too many eggs in each basket," he explains. Priceline keeps critical files on three machines -- what it calls "tri-dundancy."

How to cope: "Think of your entire virtual environment, not just storage," Rose advises. "You will get better ROI in aggregate if you think through all three layers of the virtual sandwich. And getting a little consulting from real experts early in the process will help you anticipate the entire environment."

Headache 4: Setting Up Management Tools

Like Rose, Jon Smith takes a very broad view of virtualization. "For me, a server is no different from a hunk of data storage, and I can move it wherever I want," says the CEO of ITonCommand, a hosted IT services provider. "Whether it's running the operating system or it's just data, it's all storage."

Smith says that eventually virtualization technology will enable any data to go anywhere -- on direct-attached storage when high performance is needed, or somewhere on a SAN when speed is less critical and a higher level of redundancy is required.

ITonCommand uses HP BladeSystem c3000 disks for direct-attached storage, and LeftHand Networks Virtual SAN Appliances and LeftHand's SAN/iQ software on an HP StorageWorks array for storage virtualization on its iSCSI SANs.

The company is now standardizing on Microsoft's Hyper-V hypervisor, part of Windows Server 2008, for server virtualization and on Microsoft's System Center Virtual Machine Manager for administration.

The glue that holds everything together, Smith says, is Microsoft's new Virtual Machine Manager for provisioning and managing physical and virtual computers.

"With VMM on a display, a system admin can look at all the virtual servers' hypervisors across my whole environment, all in one spot, and adjust them," he says. "It's pretty cool stuff."

It's cool when it's set up, but getting there isn't so easy, he acknowledges. "System Center is new, and so is [Hyper-V]. It took us a while to figure out how to connect all our old virtual machines into the hypervisor. It's not the easiest setup out of the box."

Smith says continued virtualization at ITonCommand will result in a true "utility computing" model for his clients. "It will take a while, but people will stop thinking of physical boxes running one operating system. Hardware will be nonexistent to the end user. It's just going to be, 'How much horsepower and storage do you want?'"

How to cope: "Find an expert who knows virtual technology and knows Microsoft System Center," says Smith.

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