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Where next for virtualisation?

CIOs met to discuss the past, present and future of virtualisation at Computer Weekly's CW500 Club in June 2015

Its ability to reduce costs and ensure enterprises have computing power when they need it has quickly made the virtualisation of servers mainstream, but the transformation to business operations that virtualisation will bring about is only just beginning.

Driven by demand from the business, virtualisation of the desktop is at least on the “to do” lists of CIOs.

In a world where business is done any time, any place, anywhere, organisations crave boundaryless access to applications. As a result, desktop virtualisation is being pulled into organisations by business departments. In contrast, the mature server virtualisation was pushed to the business by IT departments, mainly as a way to cut IT costs.

But CIOs should not immediately give in to demand from departments and roll out desktop virtualisation on request because it is driven by user requirements. 

While every business is likely to benefit from virtualisation in some way, it will not be enterprise-wide, but rather focused on particular departmental and user requirements. To this end, it is not for everybody. 

In contrast, server virtualisation is an easy choice for any organisation running server farms.

Virtualisation has the power to transform IT

IT leaders and industry experts met at a Computer Weekly CW500 Club event in June to discuss future developments in virtualisation.

Roy Illsley, principal analyst of infrastructure systems at Ovum, said virtualisation is not new, but the way businesses are harnessing it will change the lives of CIOs and transform the role of IT.

“In a sense, we have come full circle with virtualisation,” said Illsley, adding that some of the latest developments in virtualisation are merely re-inventions of what has come before. 

“Around 12 years ago, when VMware started out, there was a rival technology – Parallels Virtuozzo – which was operating system virtualisation rather than machine virtualisation,” he said. 

According to Illsley, 12 years on, Docker is being hailed as the new kid on the block, but it is doing what Parallels did all those years ago. Docker is, essentially, a type of containerisation technology that lets developers run applications – new and legacy – anywhere, whether in the cloud, virtual environments, datacentres or on laptops, for example.   

Technology with a business focus

Since the early days of virtualisation, said Illsley, machine virtualisation has cornered the market, but other forms of virtualisation are set to change enterprise IT because it is what the business wants. 

This changes virtualisation from something pushed to the business by IT departments because it helped them do more for less, into something pulled by the business to enable it to do the things it wants, when it wants.

This business-focused technology phenomenon is driving organisations to get more out of it, said Illsley. “Virtualisation of the compute level is pretty much a mature market technology and is here to stay.” 

In the future, the combination of virtualisation – making the infrastructure more agile – and mobility will mean you can provide access to applications in any way needed.

As an example of the change virtualisation is going though, Illsley cited the effect of mobile phones on how businesses use phones. 

“Everybody has a mobile phone and uses it to communicate in a way that suits them – whether it is by text, email, voice or video. If you go back 40 years, you had a desk with a telephone on it and if it rang, you answered it. But if you wanted to make a phone call, you had to press a hash button to connect to an operator to make the call,” he said. 

Another past complication when using the phone was to do with the way employees were trained to use them by the telephony teams, he added. 

However, the mobile phone is now a business technology and gives employees the opportunity to use the phone when, where and how they want.

Get business backing for IT transformation

“[Virtualisation] will change your life – it is not going to happen overnight, but in the next five years,” said Illsley. 

He said CIOs need to engage with the business and get its support in changing IT, as some in IT will fight the changes because it might make their skills redundant. “You will have resistance, so get the business on-board.”

Don Kavanagh, chief architect for the business design authority at the National Crime Agency, said his current role sees him sit in the business from a transformational point of view. This gives him a ringside seat to see how the business is pulling virtualisation into the organisation.

Virtualisation has been at the core of everything he has worked on over the past six years, from the early instantiations of cloud and the ability to work with flexible back-end servers, he said. 

“The biggest impact was the business drivers that pulled through the changes needed. That comes from the shift to businesses wanting to do things in their own way to get the business benefit.” Kavanagh said this is not just about making things available, but making them available in the right format.

“One of the main drivers has been mobility and the ability to work consistently across offices and locations, nationally and internationally,” he said.

Kavanagh described the benefits virtualisation brought to the London Business School by making it possible to run courses from anywhere in the world, and to the NHS by making it possible to share information and documents with consultants in different locations, enabling them to work on cases collaboratively.

Securing virtualised environments

Kavanagh said desktop virtualisation brings with it huge security responsibility because enabling remote access to systems is a big step for organisations with stringent security requirements, such as the NHS.

“I have worked with organisations where security has been fundamental,” he said, adding that this makes desktop virtualisation far more complex compared with server virtualisation.

He said to drive a transformation programme, it is easy enough to virtualise the back end, but using it to provide remote access is tricky. 

“Being able to slim down the desktop, have thin client, be able to move it onto any form factor and be secured back to a corporate server became fundamentally important,” he said. 

According to Kavanagh, one of the biggest concerns is over “letting the data out into the wild”, such as letting someone sit in Starbucks and access financial or human resources data.

“It has become fundamentally valuable to organisations to provide staff with access to 80% of applications from any device,” he said.  

This has helped organisations transition from legacy estates to build experiences centred in the modernised environment, with people only occasionally needing access to legacy environments. Kavanagh said legacy elements are slowly being uplifted and the dependencies are being broken, meaning they can then be brought forward on virtualised desktops.

“It doesn’t work for everyone. It is about understanding personas – who needs what. By understanding the personas of who you have got, you can spread out the applications, form factors and bandwidth relevant to the job they do,” he said.

Virtualisation is not for every business

At cost, regulation and security-conscious investment bank Morgan Stanley, virtualisation is by no means a “no brainer”.

Working in the finance sector Rob White, executive director of infrastructure at Morgan Stanley, has been in close contact with virtualisation technologies. Finance firms, such as large investment banks, are high consumers of computing power.  

Since the credit crunch of 2008, they have been trying to cut costs without diminishing performance. 

White has experience virtualising desktops and application virtualisation and says mainframe technology could already do many of the things server virtualisation offers, such as provisioning, but virtualisation made it better. 

“Our relational database management system (RDBMS) engines can do a similar job to hypervisors, dynamically allocating resources across the different databases as required,” he says. 

To this end, virtualisation might not be right for everyone, he adds. “You have to look at what you are trying to get because there are other ways of getting the same result.”

Weigh up all the options

For example, when it comes to virtual desktops, Morgan Stanley has been less enthusiastic. This is largely because it does not have the same cost benefits. White explains the low cost of commodity “fully baked” PCs makes it difficult to justify the cost of appliance computers limited to Citrix-like functionality. 

“Long-term operating expenditure cost arguments were often made, but didn’t really stand up to scrutiny,” he says.

So why has the database group at Morgan Stanley been slow to adopt virtualisation?

“We are high consumers of input/output and, in some cases, central programming units. This results in our higher-end clients being able to use the entire machine,” says White. “In addition, there are other routes to extracting maximum value from the machine. We are able to consolidate databases onto one host.”

Looking to the future, White expects new technology to increase the take up of virtualisation. “There are technologies out there, but at the moment people are just testing the waters. In the longer term, virtualisation could lead to a disruptive way of delivering services. For example, we can deliver application bundles.”

White advises CIOs to go out with a balanced portfolio and to not just focus on virtualisation because it has become popular in the enterprise. 

Read more from the Computer Weekly CW500 Club in 2015

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