Atlas Shrugging: Is IT Balancing The Weight Of The Virtual World On Its Shoulders?

Just as companies got a handle on the value of IT, emerging technology platforms such as virtualisation have the potential to destabilise the goodwill between business and IT chiefs.

Right up until this new wave in computing, IT’s relationship with business was enhanced by strong management practices supported by technologies that provided a measurable view of complex IT infrastructures. As a result, IT departments could demonstrate their value to the business and provide a strong justification for increased spend.

For example, through a combination of expert knowledge and management tools, IT personnel could quickly identify and remedy an e-commerce server collapsing under the strain of Christmas shopping. If too much time was spent resolving this issue, they could gather relevant evidence showing how the company would be much better off purchasing an additional server. Without this level of insight it was exceptionally difficult to understand the true business value of IT.

The significant cost, power and efficiency advantages of virtualisation are adding a new level of value to the business. In turn, it holds the potential to transform the business and IT relationship by truly showing how IT can deliver more for less. Amongst other things, organisations are able to quickly create vast IT infrastructures at literally a flick of a switch.

Only recently, analyst house IDC predicted that virtual servers enabled by the technology of vendors such as VMware will outnumber physical servers by the end of 2009. Virtualisation is pervading practically every aspect of IT from server to desktops, networks, applications and more recently mobile devices. No doubt in time it will become the de facto platform for all IT estates.

Unfortunately, IT departments today are finding that virtualisation is already presenting management problems. Even the business critical function of backup and recovery is problematic because to a physical system, a virtual machine is essentially ‘one big file’ containing any number of applications and items of data.

Today’s IT department would take a massive step back on the management curve if backup processes required them to constantly update huge files for often incremental changes. These challenges exist because much like the early days of Windows Server, virtualisation platforms are still relatively immature. What’s different is that virtual environments are governed by entirely new rules that simply don’t apply in the three dimensional, physical IT world.

These ‘hyper dimensional’ rules allow an IT administrator to create a virtual machine in minutes instead of the hours spent on a physical server. It also means that the same person has to maintain an exponentially higher number of servers, which for overworked IT departments presents a significant challenge.

In today’s climate only the bravest of managers would submit a budget request for extra headcount; especially for managing a technology implemented with the intention of reducing costs. Moreover, this potentially infinite scale can render management strategies in this virtual universe Sisyphean at best; IT could again become the black hole of the balance sheet.

Put simply, for virtualisation to deliver its true potential without doing any long-term damage to the business and IT relationship, management processes must mature, and quickly. At a grass roots level, greater automation of administrative activity such as file management becomes important as continually increasing headcount is ultimately ineffective. Best practice within any IT environment requires standardisation and nowhere is this more relevant than with the creation of virtual machines.

Managing vast virtual infrastructures can be complex enough so deploying a range of inconsistently configured machines will in time become a massive headache. Standardisation aids the effectiveness of system monitoring and subsequently the predictability of the virtual environment. In turn if anything does go drastically wrong it should be relatively straightforward to address.

Finally, people still need to see those all-important management reports. These reports are the physical representation of the virtual infrastructure and can be used to enhance the quality of dialogue with business leaders. The devil is very much in the detail. As virtualisation becomes the de facto platform it will be critical to have the ability to drill down into specifics about the infrastructure.

For instance, one immediate risk that needs addressing is management of software licences. Failure to comply across a virtual world made up of hundreds of machines and any number of software licenses could result in massive penalties. Similarly, large IT departments that share virtual resources across a range of teams will need to find ways of implementing accurate and timely charge-back processes. Hence IT directors equipped with this level of information can attend board meetings and provide a solid view of the state of IT.

Fundamentally, as organisations go further down the virtual road they will need to ensure there is an end game in mind or risk completely losing their way. At this point business managers will defer to tried and tested platforms and prevent not only the IT department but the entire company from enjoying the benefits of virtualisation.

Every new technology cycle holds the potential to bring IT closer to the business and further enhance this unique relationship. However, if IT heads forge ahead with implementation, neglecting the very sound management disciplines that led to business acceptance and understanding of IT, they risk being bitten by the very hand that feeds them.

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As president and CEO of Veeam Software, Ratmir Timashev brings to bear more than a decade of entrepreneurial experience building, advising and investing in successful technology companies. In 1997, he founded Aelita Software, provider of award-winning Windows Server systems management software. In 2004, Aelita was acquired by Quest Software, and after ensuring the successful continuation of Aelita’s products and strategy at Quest, Ratmir founded Veeam Software to provide similar systems management solutions for virtualized server infrastructures. Ratmir earned a master's degree in Chemical Physics from the Ohio State University in 1995. He continues to share his knowledge and ideas to fuel innovative IT solutions around the world.