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Follow the leader: Mature virtualization projects reap biggest benefits

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A recent survey shows the sharp contrast between the benefits associated with server virtualization projects depending on the age and size of the deployment.

While server virtualization is common, IT organizations often struggle with backup challenges and suffer real setbacks when it comes to transitioning from a physical to a virtual environment.

As organizations move from using server virtualization in test and development to actual production environments, data protection becomes a critical priority. Among other things, organizations are grappling with completing backups for newly virtualized machines that are provisioned without backup policies.

The other side of the coin is the list of benefits -- improved app provisioning, availability and recovery processes -- associated with server virtualization that are all closely tied to how much experience an IT team has with the technology.

Identifying virtualization maturity: Laggards, followers and leaders

Looking at some key characteristics, or key performance indicators, ESG developed a segmentation model that provides progressive definitions of technology in use. This framework provides IT organizations with a reference point to compare their organizational alignment, processes and success to those of their peers.

In a recent ESG survey of IT professionals at organizations using server virtualization technology, ESG found clear differences among three different

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groups of virtualization users. Using four key dimensions -- percent of servers that have been virtualized, percent of virtual machines in production, consolidation ratio and deployment across multiple workloads -- users were classified as either virtualization "leaders," "followers" or "laggards" (see "Virtualization user categories" below). The majority (53%) are in the follower category, 25% are identified as leaders and 22% are classified as laggards.

Virtualization user categories

Leaders

• High percent of physical servers virtualized (typically 40%+)
• High percent of virtual machines deployed in production (67% average)
• High virtual-to-physical consolidation ratio (typically more than 10)
• Deployment across many tier 1 workloads (75% have deployed mission-critical production workload)

Followers

• Medium percent of physical servers virtualized (typically 10% to 30%)
• Medium percent of virtual machines deployed in production (35% average)
• Medium virtual-to-physical consolidation ratio (typically 5 to 10)
• Deployment across more workloads, but mostly tier 2 (37% have deployed mission-critical production workloads)

Laggards

• Low percent of physical servers virtualized (typically less than 20%)
• Low percent of virtual machines deployed in production (12% average)
• Low virtual-to-physical consolidation ratio (typically less than 5)
• Deployment across limited and/or basic workloads (13% have deployed mission-critical production workloads

*ESG survey of 463 North America-based senior IT professionals representing large midmarket (500 to 999 employees) and enterprise-class (1,000 employees or more) organizations, published in December 2010.

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Live migrations, new tools help shops get ahead

One of the major objectives in examining the characteristics of these three categories of users is to better understand which organizations were optimizing their server virtualization deployments. For example, 73% of firms leverage a "live migration" feature of their hypervisor, although only 30% indicate regular usage. Curiously, using this feature to facilitate disaster recovery (DR) by moving virtual machine workloads between sites -- a distinction necessary for disaster recovery -- is only cited by 7%. The more experienced users (leaders) were more likely to perform live migrations on a regular schedule: 48% compared to 29% of followers and 11% of laggards. Consequently, approximately 58% of leaders have improved their disaster recovery capabilities, while only 38% of followers and 27% of laggards note an improvement in DR.

In examining backup and recovery, a similar profile emerges. More than half of leaders vs. 34% of followers and 26% of laggards saw an improvement in backup and recovery processes with the introduction of server virtualization; in addition, 34% of leaders, 23% of followers and 18% of laggards reduced recovery time objectives (RTOs) and improved recovery point objectives (RPOs).

The improvements in backup and recovery could be related to new tools and/or processes in place at organizations that fell into the "leader" category. Because virtualization deployment creates change -- in people, processes and technology -- it's not uncommon for the backup solution used in virtual server environments to differ from the one used to protect physical servers. ESG found leaders were more likely (38%) to change backup tools and processes. Only 28% of followers and 19% of laggards took the same route.

Start with smart backup, recovery strategy

Here are some factors to consider when planning to start or expand your virtual server environment:

Training dollars: Understanding the implications of the server virtualization environment on backup and recovery processes will go a long way in determining the right strategy, selecting the right tools, and implementing the right processes. Make sure to budget up front for continuous training.

Plan for cross-functional teams: As virtualization takes hold, organizational change is inevitable. Organizational silos will need to evolve into cross-functional teams. Decisions made by newly crowned virtualization czars should be made with backup specialists to more effectively transition backup strategies in the physical environment with those in the virtualized one.

Plan virtual workloads: The laggard-to-follower transition is especially fraught with peril when it comes to capacity planning, performance tuning and management. Small issues of resource contention between virtual machines sharing common physical infrastructure can escalate quickly as the number of virtual workloads grows, especially if backup solutions can't address the new requirements.

Make data protection a priority: All organizations will have to manage decisions about incumbent solutions vs. net new ones to deal with scale and complexity issues, and all have the ability to optimize along the virtualization journey. However, followers are at a critical stage with respect to scale and should consider the multitude of data protection options available to meet anticipated needs.

BIO: Lauren Whitehouse is an analyst focusing on backup and recovery software and replication solutions at Enterprise Strategy Group, Milford, Mass.

This was first published in February 2011

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