How quickly will the data centre move to the cloud?

Our expert examines the practicality of VMware's cloud and virtualisation visions during a recent partner event.

VMware partner event designed to energise the audience with an enhanced belief in VMware's role within the virtualisation of the data centre.

The attendees, made up of consultants, resellers and technicians, all listened attentively as a montage of PowerPoint slides painted a picture of the world from where VMware is sitting. As ever, its world is very sunny with a consistently pleasant forecast. I was still left contemplating, however, the methods through which their visions can be practically implemented in the real world, .

There is no doubt that, from a technical and operational viewpoint, the virtualised data centre can bring tangible benefits. Better control, more resiliency, more agility, improved green credentials, lower operating costs and so on, are all continually cited as justifications for a wider adoption of virtualisation within the enterprise.

Now that we understand more fully the differences between private and public clouds, better decisions can be made as to how these can be integrated into IT strategy and provide bottom-line profit benefits.

These profits can only be achieved if real efficiency savings are realised and the business has a senior management team (SMT) willing to invest in these rewards. Unless timing with asset replenishment is perfect, the enterprise needs a firm financial case to justify the expenditure.

VMware's ROI calculator
At the VMware conference, focus was placed on the use of their return on investment (ROI) calculator, which can be used to justify expenditures by showing a positive return as quickly, in some cases, as three months.

There are several difficulties in using such tools. First, ROI calculators tend to show financial benefit in favour of the vendor who provided them. I recently produced numbers using three ROI desktop virtualisation calculators from VMware, Citrix and Parallels. All three concluded that their product was best suited to the organisation concerned. With enterprises wanting comprehensive financial justifications that have substance and integrity, ROI calculators often produce more questions than they provide answers.

In the real world, the IT director has to complement the financial objectives set for the enterprise. The different business disciplines will place varying demands on the IT function, including better agility, improved business continuity and enhanced security. However, with the economic climate remaining uncertain, the financial director will have a greater voice than before and will ensure that detailed scrutiny of any provided financial justification is made.

Perhaps that is why I can see IT directors increasingly approaching data centre virtualisation in bite-sized chunks and the IT industry now rationalising this as the hybrid approach. Certainly, there are elements of the data centre infrastructure that previously were excluded from virtualisation strategies because the required products were simply not there or were too new.

What is certain is that there are now many areas of virtualisation that are arguably matured and ready for use by the enterprise. The barriers here are more financial than technical or operational.

Example of an IT director's virtualisation strategy
I recently listened attentively to an IT director outlining his virtualisation strategy. The majority of servers were virtualised using VMware, the main financial application was published via Citrix XenApp to remote users, and the challenge of extending desktop virtualisation was being set.

So arguably the hybrid approach was a feature of the existing server farm and desktops. He was viewing the extension of desktop virtualisation or a cloud-based approach by application and not desktop because there was a clearer way to justify this route. The business needed to ensure that investment brought benefits that assisted users and the IT department, as well as contributed to the profit line.

To me this made a lot of sense. Moving applications to the cloud can be seen as a progression, not a revolution, and carries less risk. Cloud-based email is a good example of this, as it is a matured offering and easily hosted.

For companies using Microsoft Exchange, use is often made of the in-built Outlook Web Access (OWA) feature, as well as Outlook client software. OWA has been around since Exchange 5.5 and provides the benefits of a hosted desktop application. Those with their own Exchange server who deliver email in this way arguably have a private cloud already. The remote user accessing email via OWA, using a Web browser, is an example of a hosted application.

Moving the central Exchange server to a hosted environment, or completely outsourcing the Exchange responsibility to a hosted service provider, brings email delivery even more into line with how the industry views cloud computing. So the transition to fully-hosted Exchange or Exchange from the cloud can be a short journey.

Financially, the justification to do this becomes more apparent as service providers set prices per user and storage used. All other infrastructure costs are included. This gives the IT director a simple set of real costs to help establish whether a cloud based approach is justifiable.

The IT director in question was also exploring how Microsoft SharePoint could be justified in the same way. Both sets of costs were real costs to the business and not open to interpretation by the vendors' ROI calculations.

However, the vision for him to implement desktop virtualisation ended there. Applications used by the majority of users could be virtualised, moved to the cloud and coupled with the delivery of the accounting application for remote users. But the remaining applications would remain unvirtualised. So looking across his server, storage and desktop landscape, a hybrid approach can be seen for both his existing infrastructure and his vision for the future.

Clearly this approach does not sync completely with the vision of the cloud evangelists. It is a compromise, or as we will increasing know it, the hybrid approach. What this does provide is a balance between the financial objectives and justifications a business places on itself, whilst gaining many definable technical and operational benefits that cloud computing can provide.

The hybrid approach is gaining traction as it meets the financial objective of further asset sweating and at the same time often meeting the demands made by the business on IT. The data centre would appear to be heading toward the cloud, but not all of it may be allowed to go there.

Andrew Cross is the sales director at independent vendor reseller Sol-Tec and a contributor to

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