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Much has been written about the benefits of consolidation and virtualization -- more space, less cooling, fewer machines to worry about, and more time for innovation to name a few. But all is not milk and honey in the land of fiber and silicon. Data center managers need to make sure conditions are right and that they're willing to devote time to planning and testing before hopping onboard the consolidation bandwagon.
Analysts with Gartner Inc. have projected that more than 60% of enterprise-level IT managers have a server consolidation project underway, hoping to stave off server sprawl, save space in their data centers, and, of course, save dollars.
"Our consolidation project drove our server to technician ratio to 34:1 [from 12:1 in 2002] and saved us a lot of money on maintenance," said Jevin Jensen, Director of IS Technical Services for Mohawk Industries Inc., a flooring manufacturer based in Calhoun, Ga. Jensen went the virtual route, using IBM hardware and the ESX virtual infrastructure software for partitioning from VMware Inc.
"The number of applications we were running grew using a virtual infrastructure, it gave us quicker response times to end users, and we can get new applications up and running in two or three hours because the templates are already built," he said. Jensen also added that disaster recovery is more effective and easier in a virtual environment.
Those seem to be the usual suspects as far as the benefits go. But some real caveats do come with the virtual territory.
"If you're running a high-transaction system that's crunching a lot of numbers, you don't want that in your virtual environment," Jensen said. He doesn't use VMware under his database servers and believes consolidation for heavy IO [input output] applications like planning systems is better with blade servers. "And beware of support issues," he added. "I've just recently started finding software companies that want to support VMware."
A lot of intensive number crunching is the domain of specific IBM or Sun systems, which isn't Palo Alto, Calif.-based VMware's turf in the first place, according to the company's director of product management Karthik Rau. "We're not a player in Unix, just the x86 market," he said.
Bill Moran, vice-president and senior analyst for Port Chester, N.Y.-based Ideas International Inc., agrees with Jensen that virtualization is not a universal solution. In some cases, it just postpones the inevitable, especially when data center managers virtualize dated systems – like Windows NT4 – that the vendor no longer supports.
"You might go from 100 to 10 physical servers and save money on cooling and floor space, but what you didn't do was get rid of NT4 – it's in virtual machine," he said. "You still have to deal with it in the future because Microsoft won't support it even in a virtual environment."
Moran also cautions data center managers running older systems like NT4 to test applications before consolidating them onto a new server like Windows Server 2003. Otherwise, consolidation could be a costly mistake.
"Sure it's another version of Windows, but there's no guarantee the migration will be easy," he said. "You've got to have the time and the skills to play with those applications."
Another limit on consolidation is the fact that not all applications will play nice together. Consolidation makes sense for homogeneous applications, but if there's a cornucopia of computations being shoehorned into a system, there could be some problems.
"You can't in general throw them into the same system and expect them to get along – testing is absolutely essential," Moran said.
Data center managers who aren't willing to devote time to testing, planning and doing their due diligence should think twice about consolidation, agreed Sue Slan, director of global IT operations for San Jose, Calif.-based Quantum Corp. She stressed studying the environment, understanding hardware "before and after" scenarios, understanding new maintenance and payment schedules, and understanding users' needs before embarking on a consolidation project. In other words, if you're not willing to do a lot of planning, don't bother.
"Planning and more planning is critical in server consolidation," she said. "Without it, things will go awry."
Data center managers who aren't willing to budget enough money on their project could face some problems as well. John Weeks, IT director at Enumclaw, Wash.-based Mutual of Enumclaw Insurance Co. said his server consolidation and virtualization project was begotten of "enforced austerity." And while he's satisfied overall with the results, if he had to do it all over again, he'd rather not have gone into the project on the cheap.
"We experienced some pain," he said largely because they didn't design a virtual recovery solution into the system. "You can only ride the frugality wave so far, but you'll pay for it eventually," he said.
Finally, the political climate within a company can influence a consolidation project, especially when multiple departments within a company own systems. "That becomes a huge problem," Moran said. "You have to negotiate with these people, and you definitely don't want to consolidate if the right level of executive sponsorship isn't there to back you up.
"If it's not, the IT person will lose."
Ed Parry has covered the IT industry for TechTarget since 2000. He is a freelance writer in Chattanooga, Tenn., and writes broadcast news for WSB-TV in Atlanta.
This article originally appeared on SearchDataCenter.com.