How to plan out your virtual environment

How to make informed decisions when moving to a virtual environment from a physical setup.

Server and desktop virtualisation are concepts that many IT professionals, but not all, understand and deploy. For those not yet there, tentative steps towards a virtual environment can often be the way to get started. For example, downloading and deploying the free VMware hypervisor is a way of gaining some benefits of virtualisation,  just as it is to deploy Terminal Services (sorry, Microsoft Remote Desktop Services) for remote user access.

The long-term benefits that virtualisation promises is reason enough to commit to projects. And therein lies my concern: Just what detailed intelligence is being extracted about an organisation’s physical environment before virtualisation strategies are discussed and decisions are made?

Making good decisions about your virtual server environment

Good decisions are based upon a combination of factors. Interculturalist Milton J. Bennett of the IDR Institute is credited with the “Forest and Trees” analogy that offers underlying principles for good decision making. Without an exhaustive explanation, the forest is the bigger picture and the trees represent the details. This theory says that if you circle around the details and the bigger picture a number of times during a decision-making process, then you will gain better judgement. It’s a neat concept that crystalises a mental decision-making approach. But what happens if the trees are not the appropriate details? 

More than half of my customer meetings over the last two months have concerned server virtualisation and storage virtualisation requirements where the organisations have reached a decision on their strategy without a full and proper assessment of its suitability. These meetings were more about “how do we do this?” not “should we do this?”

When I drilled for the details that supported these decisions, the most common response was that no assessments had been done to establish if the environment under discussion was suitable for virtualisation. If you were buying a house, would you ignore the services provided by a surveyor? No. So why do some organisations think they can build virtual environments without an equivalent level of assessment on their physical environment and infrastructure?

This is not rocket science. If a company is seeking server consolidation using VMware, then running VMware’s Capacity Planner for a full month’s business cycle will give detailed information on which to base a server consolidation decision. If Microsoft’s Hyper-V is the favoured end goal, run Microsoft’s Assessment and Planning Tool. If you are skeptical because these tools are provided by the vendors themselves, consider a third-party tool like Lanamark. The simple message here is to do something that gives more data to support a pragmatic decision on virtualisation. For those who already take this approach, such statements may seem derisory and obvious. For others, this comes across as justification for a budget to be increased to accommodate another service that simply confirms what the vendor’s PowerPoint presentation or ROI calculator provided.

Some companies with a detailed approach to decision making for server, storage and even networking exclude or only partly include desktop virtualisation with this approach. One of the most important responsibilities a virtualised server environment has is the user desktop. If IT is there to provide services to the external customer through the internal customer, then surely it can use a similarly detailed approach to virtualising a user’s desktop to minimise headaches and maximise business benefit. For example, load testing can be carried out through Proof of Concepts replicating an existing environment, or products like EdgeSight from Citrix Systems can simulate an environment to provide accurate data for decision making.

VM metering in a virtual environment

VM management is not just about availability and resources; ongoing assessment will bring a lot of benefits. Service providers that focus on Software Asset Management (SAM) have gained much traction in recent years because that process helps organisations ensure compliancy and reduce license expenditure.  SAM reports on the usage of applications by user thus allowing reallocation of software licenses where it’s appropriate.

This metering approach to applications also extends to virtual machines within the data centre. Assuming a virtual machine (VM) creates an operational cost to manage, VMs that are underutilised can have their roles called into question and removed when you can find a suitable alternative approach. This detailed approach to VM management requires an automated and efficient approach because VM sprawl is a recognised problem especially when business units are constantly requesting or self-provisioning additional servers.

VM metering will become an operational requirement as organisations try to extract maximum benefits from their virtualised environments. Decommissioning inefficient or low usage VMs to help optimise a virtualised environment is a foreseeable requirement.

CIOs need factual information on which to base recommendations which will drive overall efficiency. If they choose a cloud model whereby a company has committed to recharging business units based upon resource usage, then metering will provide one fixed element for the charge. Companies with the cloud recharge model (whereby the company is recharged based on last month’s usage) are already aligned to this thinking. Companies that are not will need to extend their VM management responsibilities beyond the basics of provisioning to include a more challenging view and have to decide whether individual VMs should exist at all.        

A detailed approach like this adds to a project budget that may already be stretched. IT departments must make judgements based on their skills and experience; after all, that is what an organisation pays them for. A supportive organisation willing to invest in a detailed assessment of its environment as part of the overall server virtualisation  project could be met with inertia from within IT. Staff members may believe they know what is required and that such exercises are a waste of their limited time. Remember, though: Getting sucked into agreeing with that view leaves the decision-making process open to mistakes. After all, the more you know about the trees, the better the forest will be.

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


This was last published in July 2011

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