Split personality

You might not believe it given the huge volume of computer sales to the government every year, but many agencies actually have more computing power than they need.

The increasing power of servers built on x86 processors from Intel Corp. and Advanced Micro Devices Inc., coupled with falling storage and memory prices, have allowed agencies to purchase closets full of these versatile machines. But in many cases, half or more of the processing capacity sits idle, according to experts.

One reason for this is that agencies have to dedicate each server to a single operating system, even if it's an older one running only a few applications. Other issues compel information technology shops to distribute jobs across many machines, even though one may be sufficient to do the work.

For example, security concerns sometimes require that sensitive work be segregated from general office tasks. Or worries about problems that may result when applications are moved from one hardware platform to another may prompt IT staff to maintain two servers rather than merge applications onto a single operating system.

Server virtualization, a relatively new technology in the x86 world, may help eliminate some of the wastefulness. Long available for mainframe and midrange computers, server virtualization allows administrators to run multiple operating systems simultaneously on a single physical server.

"Basically, it breaks the dependency between the operating system and the hardware," said Ian Robinson, director of product marketing at VMware Inc., which launched a virtual server for x86 computers three years ago. Storage maker EMC Corp. recently purchased VMware.

Connectix Corp. was another early entrant in the x86 virtual server arena. Last year, Microsoft Corp. purchased the company's assets and now offers some Connectix software as Microsoft Virtual Server 2005. Another company, SWsoft, offers an x86 server-partitioning product called Virtuozzo.

The concept behind virtualization is simple: A product such as VMware's GSX Server allows IT managers to set up a machine's host operating system on one or more independent virtual machines, each running its own operating system and

applications.

In the case of GSX Server, the partitions can run versions of Microsoft Windows, Novell Inc. NetWare or Linux. As long as the operating system can run on the x86 architecture, it can run on a virtual machine. You can also easily move such machines from one hardware platform to another as needed.

Cost savings is one of the most compelling benefits of virtual servers. A case in point is Lockheed Martin Corp.'s space operations division, which was contracted to provide support for NASA missions as part of the agency's $3 billion Consolidated Space Operations Contract (CSOC). To save money, CSOC created storefronts, facilities on or near university campuses where students are hired to perform software engineering and other related work.

For security reasons, each storefront -- so far there are two -- runs three separate systems. A Windows 2000 Server connects to the CSOC infrastructure via T1 lines. It allows users to store word-processing documents and access e-mail.

Another server running RedHat Inc. Linux uses a secure connection, via a virtual private network, to Lockheed's research and development facility in Houston. Workers use this machine to evaluate commercial off-the-shelf products and train on the operational software. This server also is sometimes used to do contractual work for organizations other than NASA.

A third server, running Linux and enhanced with security features, is used for the NASA ground system development environment, such as software command and telemetry projects.

Bill Smith, senior project engineer for CSOC, said that although it might have been possible -- with some difficulty -- to move the office automation and R&D work onto the same operating system and physical server, NASA officials would have had to segregate the secure connection from the other applications. By running all the applications on one physical server but partitioning the systems from one another using GSX Server -- and VMware Workstation for PCs -- the company was able to set up the storefronts at half the cost of buying separate servers.

"It's a pretty simple calculation," Smith said. "Installation is based on the number of drops, and where we would have had to have at least two devices, now we only need one." Virtualization not only eliminates the need for extra servers but also reduces network gear and peripherals, such as printers. It also reduces the associated administrative and real estate costs.

Ready for takeoff

Backing from large companies such as EMC and Microsoft for virtual server technology for x86 computers should give the market a significant boost during the next few years, said Dan Kusnetzky, program vice president for systems software at IDC.

Other large players are also adopting the technology. IBM Corp. officials, for example, have announced a strategic relationship with VMware, allowing customers of its x86-based xSeries servers to use virtual server technology. Company officials take a more holistic view of virtualization, pairing VMware's server product with IBM tools for detaching physical resources such as network and storage from the virtual machines. The idea is to let IT administrators move workloads anywhere on the network.

"We believe virtualization of the [operating system] engine only takes care of one part of the problem," said Tim Dougherty, director of IBM eServer.

Kusnetzky sees consolidation as virtual servers' primary advantage. "Many agencies have 20 old [Windows] NT servers," he said. Agency officials "tell us they could merge them into one or two newer servers, which are more powerful than the total

of the 20, but they're afraid of the work involved."

Until recently, their only option for consolidation was to merge all the workloads onto one common operating system. However, virtual server technology allows them to run the applications using their original OS on a single server.

Even if agency officials were willing to put in the work needed to move applications from multiple servers and operating systems to a single platform and system, they would face security issues. A single target would be easier to bring down, and as in the case of CSOC, some systems have to be segregated. A virtual server solution segregates the workloads onto separate operating systems, with the inherent benefits of that

architecture.

"One partition can be attacked, but the others are as safe as if they were on a separate physical sever," Kusnetzky said.

A virtual server can also provide an environment to test patches and updates before they are implemented. In this case, IT administrators would create a separate operating system partition and test the upgraded application on it.

Virtual servers can also simplify backup and recovery. Virtual machines are represented by files on the host operating system, so backups involve taking snapshots of the files. Restoring a traditional server setup involves reinstalling the operating system, configuring the applications and recovering files. Restoring a virtual machine, however, requires moving a file onto the server.

For many, the top draw of virtual server technology is the opportunity to consolidate physical servers. That was the main objective when the Nebraska legislature's IT department bought VMware's products, according to Daren Gillespie, a network administrator for the legislature.

The organization had 25 servers running a mix of Linux, Windows 2000, Windows NT 4.0 Workstation and Server, and Windows 2003. It recently moved to another data center, where the rent is based on the number of physical servers. To lower costs, Gillespie used VMware GSX Server to reduce the configuration from 25 to three physical servers.

The architecture has also given him a great deal of flexibility in configuring the three servers. "The fact that [operating systems and associated applications] are actually a file makes life very easy for us because you can take that file anywhere," he said. "It's hardware-agnostic. I can move any job from a Dell [Inc.] to [a Hewlett-Packard Co.] with no problems."

Server virtualization is not new, but the fact that it is now available for x86 servers is a testimony to the power this class of servers has acquired. Now, like midrange machines, they have the horsepower to run multiple operating systems, and they finally have the software to allow them to do so.

Stevens is a freelance journalist who has written about information technology since 1982.

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