One major benefit of virtualisation lies in the consolidation of hardware - or does it? Steve Gold looks at the real economics of virtualisation and explains why the devil is in the detail...
Whilst virtualisation clearly means different things to different people, one common theme - that of consolidation of hardware - tends to bubble to the top very early on in discussions about the technology.
It's interesting to note that, ever since VMware - arguably one of the major players in the PC software virtualisation stakes - was formed in the late 1990s, the company has promoted the idea that virtualisation is synonymous with the consolidation of hardware.
It's important to realise, however, that despite its recent rise to the top of the IT planning list, virtualisation technology has actually been around for some time and its origins trace all the way back to the earliest days of the mainframe computer.
One of the major advantages of virtualisation is that it complements the introduction of service-oriented architecture (SOA) in the IT planning process.
If you're not familiar with the subject, service-orientation involves the loose coupling of services with operating systems, and other technologies that underlie applications.
Put simply, SOA separates IT functions into distinct units, or services, which software developers can make accessible over a network in order to allow users to combine and re-use them in the production of applications.
These services communicate with each other by passing data from one service to another, or by co-ordinating an activity between two or more services.
And this is what makes virtualisation really start to fly in any major IT or data centre deployment.
Alongside the clear advantages of running, for example, 24 instances of a given operating system environment on, say, 12 servers, by taking an SOA approach to the software running on those virtual servers, even more cost-benefits can be squeezed from the fruit of virtualisation.
It's against this backdrop that IT managers planning a migration to virtualisation can start to understand the advantages of the technology that apply to what is the increasingly complex and layered modern IT environment that drives today's organisations.
You can, for example, really start to harness the benefits of virtualisation by also using a thin client architecture on remote machines, such as laptops.
This allows users to switch to using lower powered netbooks in place of the high powered (and expensive) laptops that executives often demand for use in the field.
As well as the obvious cost savings that accrue from this strategy, there are also advantages of in terms of battery life, as the latest netbooks can last for six hours or more between charges.
From this it can be seen that virtualisation allows IT managers to decouple software performance from expensive proprietary hardware.
Furthermore, as hardware becomes ever more commoditised and prices continue to drop, data centres employing virtualisation technology become ever more attractive.
You can, for example, run as many as 80 workstations in a thin client virtualisation environment on an IBM Blade server costing around 8,000 pounds.
The economics become even more sharply defined when you start to tot up the costs of running Windows Vista on the desktop, rather than across a thin client/virtualised environment.
It's calculations like that this that really highlight the advantages that accrue for moving to a virtualised server environment, as there are many layered advantages that can be extracted from the move, as well as the clear direct advantages of running multiple instances of an operating system on a cluster of virtual servers.
So what sort of direct hardware savings can organisations derive from embracing virtualisation?
This question was answered in late October this year when IBM announced it had landed a contract with Middlesex University to upgrade its infrastructure and provide disaster recovery services in a multi-million pound, five year deal.
Under the agreement, IBM is implementing a hosted, virtualised server and storage environment and provide emergency back-up from a further IBM data centre, enabling a flexible, robust disaster recovery system.
By using a variety of virtualisation systems the University will reduce the number of machines from around 250 to just 25 at its primary data centre.
This is on top of a reduction in electricity usage by 40 per cent - from around 47 to 27 kW/hour; and physical space requirements from approximately 1,000 to just 400 square feet.
According to IBM, the University will also see a reduction in the power and space requirements of its on-campus machine rooms, helping the site to meet government energy saving targets.
Other benefits include lower operating costs; improved collaboration tools; increased storage space; improved storage management tools; and higher levels of service to teaching staff and students alike.
According to Fraser Davidson, IBM UK vice president of public sector, the University has an impressive vision to use technology to consistently deliver the best teaching materials both remotely to students and for students using IT on-campus.
Under the agreement, IBM will provide remote managed information services, offering IT management and support to the University, so freeing its IT team's time to focus on skills and knowledge development in areas of more strategic significance.
Davidson said that the contract, which was signed back in September, also addresses Middlesex University's email and file storage requirements.
Through server and storage consolidation and virtualisation, the organisation's storage capacity will be increased by 45 per cent, from 48 to 70 terabytes, exploiting the benefits of IBM XIV Storage System and IBM System x3850 M2 hardware.