Virtualization — Problem Solver and Problem

I read with interest the article in the latest canadian computer dealer news about executive dissatisfaction with virtualization. While many companies are doing it — no doubt because the trade press screams that this is the wave of the future, etc, business executives are left wondering where the business case is for this technology. I share their concerns but will also share my experience with the technology and how I use it in the Technology Strategists computing environment.

The obvious use is as a test environment. Virtual machines for test or demonstration purposes can be setup much faster than physical hardware can be procured. There is a global limitation of virtualization in that the physical hardware must contain the virtual environment to get acceptable performance — so a 4gb memory size virtual machine will just not load in a 2gb physical machine. Copies of virtual machines can be made to test alternate configurations or capabilities — but be careful that the software licensing agreements are not violated.

Disaster recovery is another easy use — because virtual machines are files, they can be more easily replicated to offsite storage or alternate data centers. The gotcha (of course) is that the file needs to be closed to get a clean copy. Data is an issue that requires special handling — using database replication between sites to keep multiple locations in synch is the preferred approach. But be careful, standby replication schemes work but can have problems. An easier approach if the applications are not always in use is to close the VM and copy it to the second location — so the disaster copy is always one restart behind.

Using virtualization to run production loads is a tad trickier — we have done it here but find that there are issues. There are some management applications that are best kept offline to reduce their disruptive impact, starting them periodicly for a few days to check the state of the environment — then leave down so work can be accomplished. [I will not name names…] Issues we have run into fall into three groups — physical limitations of the execution environment constrain the virtual environment; software limitations of hardware emulations; and limited access to physical machine resources.

Physical limitations of the execution environment means that the machine one uses for virtualization must be larger than the sum of the virtual machines running on it. In practive, this means that older application environments could be resurrected by virtualization and consolidated, the host machine has to be bigger and faster. And hardware costs do not go up linearly as the capabilities of the box expand, unfortunately.

Software limitations of hardware emulations include problems like display constraints — have not been able to get a stable VM for applications that use DirectX-3D. And disk-intensive applications run slowly due to the double layer of IO emulation.

And no virtualization technology I have worked with appears to permit access to any more than a narrow range of physical devices — tape drives or other exotic peripherals are just not accessible.

And virtualization vendors in general are a myopic lot — not only do people want to be able to move execution environments in and out of virtualization, but they may want to move virtual machines to different virtualization environments. We dropped a promising virtualization technology when we found that there were no conversion tools available and the vendor got very vague when asked how to move existing virtual machines to their product. Its like the old days when relational databases were new — always an easy sell if the customer had nothing, but if they were already using product ‘x’, getting them to move to ‘y’ was pretty tough if there was no easy migration path.

Virtualization does solve business problems for us — it allows running of poorly written applications in isolated environments and makes it possible to have more operating systems available to use than there are physical machines. So we can get a lot more kinds of work done on limited hardware than might seem possible from an inventory of our hardware. And there is a lot that can be done with low cost software in this environment — but one does need the licenses to cover all those virtual machines.

I have seen it said that when vendors and their running dogs are insistent that a technology is inevitable, it really means just the latest application of the big lie (just like politics). Repeat something often enough and people will start to believe it is true rather than what you want them to believe. They may be right in some sense beyond their own need to ‘make the numbers’ but the business case needs to be sound for the expense to be justified.


4 thoughts on “Virtualization — Problem Solver and Problem

  1. Thank you for the sensible critique. Me & my neighbour were preparing to do some research about that. We got a good book on that matter from our local library and most books where not as influensive as your information.

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