Virtualization dangers and how to avoid them

At this fall's Infrastructure Management World conference, half of the conference goers surveyed said they are or will employ server virtualization (see story). Meanwhile, a leading virtualization vendor estimates that more than 90% of virtualized and consolidated IT infrastructure are in production environments, and some organizations are realizing consolidation rates of up to 30 to 1.

The potential benefits of virtualization are driving the rush to consolidate entire data centers. Our work with customers, however, suggests there are risks to consider.

Those risks fall into four categories.

  1. Server failure. Large-scale consolidation may put many key processes, applications and services in the same proverbial basket. Consequently, fewer physical servers bear the workload -- and a physical failure has much more significant consequences. 
  2. Over-provisioning. Starting consolidation without a clear picture of an application's function, workload or profile may lead to infrastructures that are out of balance and over-provisioned.
  3. Operational process. Many IT organizations implement proactive monitoring systems and some formally change control process, but few have advanced operational processes to manage crucial aspects of a smooth-running virtual environment.
  4. Service levels. Virtualization technology requires new skills; for example, the ability to identify whether a problem originates in the physical or virtual environment. Without staff skills to address problems, service levels may suffer.

Operational process encompasses everything from application availability to service levels and problem-solving. Configuration and capacity management deserve close attention for their potential to ensure business benefits. The IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL), a widely accepted source for best practices and guidance in IT services, provides some helpful information.

Configuration management

Consolidated infrastructure requires more rigorous controls and operations practices to prevent unscheduled outages. Configuration management includes identifying system, hardware or software configuration; managing changes in configuration; and documenting configuration throughout product life cycle.

Unauthorized, undocumented and untested changes to consolidated servers could cause outages to many parts of the business that can't be fixed with a midmorning reboot. For virtualized environments, a configuration management process is essential to retain the benefits and cost savings of consolidation. IT pros should consider the following steps:

  •   Reiterate the need to follow existing change control processes.
  • Document server and application configurations.
  • Determine relationships and dependencies between servers and applications and other parts of the infrastructure.
  • Implement tools that provide alerts when configurations are changed. 
  • Become familiar with the ITIL configuration management process and associated technologies, and implement them.
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