The Virtual Procrastinators

Despite the technology's promise, most businesses have yet to deploy virtual servers. Here's why.

At PerkinElmer Inc., server virtualization is a new data center standard. In less than two years, the life sciences company has gone from experimenting with VMware ESX Server on a few machines in its development group to deploying 230 virtual server instances in its Boston data center. “Our journey has been a pretty smooth one,” says CIO Matt Dattilo. But even as the Wellesley, Mass.-based company prepares to deploy the technology in its five largest data centers, most of Dattilo’s peers are still kicking the tires.

In Computerworld’s latest quarterly Vital Signs survey, 51% of the 314 IT managers polled said they have no plans to use server virtualization. Fewer than one in five said they’re testing the technology, and just one quarter use it for production servers. A mere 4% said they have followed PerkinElmer’s example and made virtual machines a default server technology standard for many data center applications. “Most companies are still working with it in smaller areas, consolidating a few servers,” says Gartner Inc. analyst Martin Reynolds.

Emerging Tech

What new technologies hold the most promise for your company?

1. Virtualization

2. Mobile/wireless (e.g., 3G)

3. Server bladesTop three responses;

multiple responses allowed

Base: 314 IT managers

Source: Computerworld Vital Signs online survey, August 2006

The technology is maturing rapidly, but most organizations are just starting to climb the adoption curve. IT executives recite a litany of reasons why they’re hesitant to move forward. Obstacles include the need to train administrators, cost, the lack of vendor competition, and concerns about the availability and quality of management tools. They also worry that software vendors won’t support applications running on virtual machines.

The survey shows that the reasons for considering virtualization differ depending on the size of the organization. While more than half of large companies cite consolidation as their primary reason for adopting server virtualization, companies with fewer than 500 employees are most interested in ease of deployment and manageability. And some smaller companies are looking at virtualization to solve business continuity challenges.

Rod Payton, IT director at Bethesda, Md.-based Case Design/Remodeling Inc., says disaster recovery makes the business case for virtualization. He has been testing Microsoft Corp.’s Virtual Server and VMware Inc.’s VMware ESX Server, and he plans to roll out ESX Server later this fall. “Cost savings isn’t our primary motivation,” Payton says. With the ability to move virtual machines, “we can fail over in real time or in a very short time,” he says. “We’ll be able to implement disaster recovery that we don’t even have today.” But he’s also cautious and plans to roll out virtualization gradually over six months. “I’m not going to put myself in a corner based on something a vendor says. I want to see it work,” Payton explains.

VMware is the dominant vendor, with 55% of the virtual machine market, according to IDC. Microsoft currently offers Virtual Server 2005, which runs on top of Windows, but it plans to incorporate a more powerful “hypervisor” virtualization layer in the upcoming Longhorn release of Windows Server. That version, which won’t require a host operating system, will more directly compete with VMware’s ESX Server.

In the Linux realm, the Xen hypervisor within the popular Linux distributions from Red Hat Inc. and SUSE Linux AG will soon provide another alternative. Anticipation of those changes may also be keeping some people on the sidelines.

“There’s confusion over where things are going,” says Reynolds. “Do I invest in VMware now, whereas if I wait another 18 months, I can have Microsoft virtualization that could be a whole lot less expensive and work with my Windows servers better?”

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