Servers get a makeover in 2010

Virtualization will hit a hot streak in 2010, and enterprises will order more systems fully loaded with maximum processing power, memory and I/O capabilities

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, four-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.

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