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What is the role of virtualization in cloud-based services?

Virtual machines. Most IT pros understand this term and the benefits of moving from hardware to virtual machines. But virtualization is far more than just “machines.” It is set to disrupt virtually every computer-related operation for businesses, especially when those businesses make the decision to virtualize in-house or to move to cloud-based IT service providers.

What is Virtualization

The basic concept of virtualization is that a piece of software will function as a physical object, that is, it will “look” and “behave” like hardware. Thus, it will perform all of the functions that a piece of hardware performs without the hardware in place. As such, the software emulates a desktop PC on a server.

And this, in fact, is what cloud-based IT service provides – a place where business functions can occur and be stored without the need for in-house hardware.

How Virtualization is Different from Cloud Computing

Virtualization software allows multiple operating systems and applications to run on the same server at the same time, and, as a result, lowers costs and increases efficiency of a company’s existing hardware. It’s a fundamental technology that powers cloud computing.

Virtualization thus emulates hardware. Cloud computing is a service that results from that manipulation and is an external service. Cloud computing almost always assumes virtualization of certain resources (storage or data) that will be then delivered to the customer on-demand.

The Main Types of Virtualization

There are  , categorized according to the elements they are used on.

1. Server Virtualization

Server space is conserved through by consolidating multiple machines into a single server that then runs multiple virtual environments. It’s a method by which businesses can run the same applications on multiple servers, so that there is a “failsafe” position. Because each server is independent, running software on one will not affect the other. Another emerging trend in server virtualization is migration. A server environment can be moved from one place to another, even if the machines have different operating systems. The obvious benefit is the savings on hardware.

2. Storage Virtualization

Disk storage used to be a simple matter. If a business needed more, it simply purchased a larger disk drive. But storage needs continue to grow, and managing them becomes much harder. Virtualization is a great answer. It adds an additional layer of software between systems and servers, and applications no longer need to know where specific data resides. It is managed as if it is a single resource. Servers will see the virtualization layer as one single storage device, and each individual storage device sees the layer as its only server.

3. Network Virtualization

This type of virtualization allows management and monitoring of an entire network as a single entity. Primarily, it is designed to automate administrative tasks, disguising the complexity of the network. Each server (and service) is considered a part of one pool of resources to be used without worry about its physical components.

Understanding the Advantages of Virtualization

The best way to think about the role of virtualization is to understand the difference between private and public clouds. Basically, in a private cloud environment, a business owns/leases both the hardware and the software that provides the service consumption. This is in-house virtualization, and the business maintains full management and control.

The public cloud environment is one in which all of the virtualization is housed somewhere else, and a vendor provides the service to clients on a fee basis. In the public cloud, there are “co-tenants” in the same cloud, and clients pay for the specific services they use, as they use them.

The Private Cloud

A private cloud is thus its own virtualized world. It gives users more control, along with flexibility to manage their own systems, while still having all of the benefits of the cloud. Plus, the owner does not have to worry about coexisting “bad neighbors” or possible slowdowns in performance. Virtualization results in the following benefits:

  1. Maximizing existing resources: Virtualization will allow a user to keep physical systems to a minimum, getting greater value out of existing servers.
  2. Running multiple applications and their operating systems on the same hardware.
  3. Costs are direct but are fixed. All costs for management, administration, and other requirements are within the in-house IT budget.

For a business to consider whether to use virtualization (a private cloud), it must consider who will be providing the support and how will it be integrated with other in-house systems. Cost (operational expenditures), of course, is a consideration. How much management is a business willing to do? What about scalability and security needs?

In general, businesses that need greater control and security and that have large IT staffs for these purposes will probably find virtualization preferable.

The Public Cloud

Virtualized services through a public cloud environment are usually preferable for businesses that have smaller IT staffs and that tend to have fewer security concerns. A cloud-based solution will provide the following:

  • IT is basically outsourced. Because there is a service provider, administration and supportive services are taken care of elsewhere. In-house IT staff remain available for other business purposes.
  • Setup is easy and fast. And servers, hardware, and software licenses are eliminated.
  • Pay-as-you-use. Cloud-based services are charged based upon scope of use, and, while they can sometimes seem pricey, businesses do not have to put dollars into supportive products (spam/anti-virus resources, data archiving, encryption, off-site storage, etc.)
  • Scalability. Cloud services allow both permanent and temporary scaling. Thus, a business can off-load high-demand requirements at any time, even on a temporary basis, and pay only for the time of that off-load.

It’s important to note that virtualization via private cloud or the move to cloud computing services are not mutually exclusive nor are they competitive.

Many businesses have in-house virtualization for some functions and move to the cloud for others. Still others who begin with virtualization of their own servers may ultimately end up in the cloud, as an evolutionary matter. They simply want more service delivery, scale, and agility.

Private Cloud Virtualization: Advantages and Disadvantages

As discussed above, there are several advantages of private cloud virtualization – in-house control and the flexibility to manage one’s own systems, being the most important. And the cost benefits are obvious as well – minimizing the need for physical systems.

Taking a more specific look at the advantages and disadvantages will provide CIO’s with the information they need as they make decisions about virtualization.

Advantages

  1. Businesses that “live” in a regulatory environment (e.g. financial services, health) have critical data and protection responsibilities. Building virtualization infrastructures themselves rather than sharing them with others in a public cloud, can raise issues.
  2. Likewise, companies that have data which they wish to remain confidential (e.g., research), can feel a bit better about in-house virtualization, in which they can protect that data. No other company has access to that infrastructure.
  3. Private Cloud Virtualization has greater reliability. When public clouds are considered, potential users must conduct solid research to determine if the server they select can provide premiere performance for the types of applications and services they need. In building a private cloud, predictable and reliable service for users is generally most assured.
  4. Cost and Flexibility. There are always trade-offs when implementing new hardware and software. In the case of a private cloud, the initial expense of installing servers and storage can be high. On the other hand, great flexibility can be built in so that workloads can easily be shifted during peak usage spikes and when new applications are deployed. There is no need to make a request of a cloud service provider, before changes can be accomplished.

Disadvantages

No software or hardware solution is perfect, and that is certainly the case with private cloud virtualization. Before building and deploying, there are disadvantages to be considered:

  1. Integration with other in-house systems can be an issue.
  2. Managing and supporting virtualization will often require dedicated IT staff, and that may bring costs up, if there is already not a good-sized department. This is the primary reason why smaller businesses opt for external cloud services.
  3. Scaling and security will require specific expertise.

Best practices for server virtualization

Implementing virtualization will require a lot of thoughtful planning, to get the results a business wants – efficiency, cost-savings, etc. Here is a list of some best practices before, during, and after deployment.

  1. Both the host OS and the virtual machines running at the same time must have enough memory. There should be enough for a virtual machine to run its operating system, as well as that of the host OS.
  2. Enough disk space is also critical, including enough for each virtual machine’s paging file and for saving each machine’s RAM contents.
  3. Identify where large memory support will be needed and enable that.
  4. Consider disabling threading technology. Otherwise, under heavy computing workload events, performance can suffer.
  5. When virtual machines require lots of network activity, there can be a burden on the adapters on the physical computer. Consider configuring two network adapters, one of which is only for use by the operating system.
  6. Be sure to shut down all virtual machines when making any changes.
  7. Write protect any parent disk.
  8. Anticipate and plan for high disk use, so that there is no “disk time-out.”
  9. Secure all virtual machines just as you would a physical machine. This means enabling a firewall, applying security patches, antivirus software, and lockdown procedures as may be suitable.
  10. Be certain to shut down all virtual machines before shutting down the host server. If not, you could lose data.
  11. Keep an event log.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it is a start. Any IT staff that will be managing virtualization should stay current in the latest best practice innovations and trends.

If done right, virtualization can transform business IT tasks – creating an environment of efficiency, of maximizing existing resources, of saving the costs, of continually upgrading hardware systems, and of bringing greater security. It takes planning, the right expertise, and a commitment to ongoing management and administration though.

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