Using Virtualization for Business Continuity and Availability

Many virtualization strategies can enable business continuity. The right solution depends on your environment and where you want to take it in the future.

by John Bennett

Virtualization -- an approach to IT that pools and shares resources so utilization is optimized and supply automatically meets demand – has this past year moved beyond emerging technology to mainstream adoption. Widely identified as a key enabling element of the next generation data center, virtualization is critical for any organization transforming a traditional IT environment into one that's characterized by automated 24x7 lights-out computing.

The viability of virtualization for servers and storage is no longer debated because of its strong benefits, including greater flexibility to respond to business needs, reduced costs, and improved service levels. Early adopters have also focused on virtualization as a means of reducing costs through consolidation. As customer comfort levels increase and offerings from vendors mature, businesses will implement virtualization across a wider array of environments to gain important benefits such as business continuity.

Similar to physical environments, virtual environments require a level of management in order to protect resources and data and mitigate risk. Not broadly understood in the debate about the risks of virtualization is the extraordinary value virtualization can provide from a business continuity/disaster recovery perspective. According to IDC's Virtualization Maturity Index, organizations are just starting to leverage the technology in a proactive manner and reaping higher than expected total cost of ownership savings in this area.1

Businesses today acknowledge the importance of business continuity and availability (BC&A) to their success. Four out of five (79%) respondents in a recent HP survey on the topic reported that BC&A will be a higher corporate, with disaster recovery being the top focus area. Among the top five drivers of BC&A spending are lowering operational /IT costs, competitive pressure, and business change, indicating acceptance of the role of BC&A in delivering business outcomes.2

Traditionally, the highest level of disaster recovery protection has been achieved by physically duplicating everything in the data center at a separate location. This "copy" of the data center would sit dormant until there was a failure at the primary site. While highly effective, this active/spare site approach is costly and difficult to justify from a return-on-investment standpoint, especially for smaller organizations.

Virtualization, when combined with the right management tools, provides a compelling alternative. Because it separates applications from the physical layer and allows for the sharing of computing resources, even in a multi-operating system environment, virtualization enables organizations to set up two sites that both run in active mode. This provides value to the business on a day-to-day basis, with each site able to take on the mission-critical workloads of the other in the event of an outage.

Suddenly, organizations that were only able to fund the most basic of disaster recovery solutions -- or had no disaster recovery solution at all -- find themselves able to achieve disaster tolerance. This shifts the concern from "How quickly can we recover continuity of IT operations?" to "How can we ensure that there is no loss in continuity of IT operations?"

Manageability is key to successfully leverage virtualization for improving business continuity. Customers should thoroughly explore the options for management tools whether they are in the planning stages for virtualization, re-evaluating existing virtualization strategies, or somewhere in between. Implementing management tools that can automatically move applications from system to system in the event of a failure and maintain service-level objectives through dynamic resource re-allocation -- even between multiple, distributed data centers -- is what enables successful business continuity. This applies whether using virtualization on large mission-critical servers or smaller industry standard servers in cluster configurations.

Some servers offer electrically isolated partitions so if one section fails, the others can continue to function without disruption. Additionally, software tools can automatically assess when servers need additional resources and adjust virtualized server capacity in real time, alleviating potential bottlenecks and slowing of systems due to over-provisioning. This software also allows application workloads to be prioritized, allowing the highest priority workloads resources ahead of lower priority workloads. This "goal-based workload management," a VSE feature, ensures real-time adjustments to maintain service levels for critical applications. The resulting flexibility and higher levels of availability provide IT with the ability to support dynamically changing business needs like never before.

Successful implementations of highly available virtualized environments require considerations beyond servers and manageability. In particular, data protection and access must be considered as well. Business continuity requires access to both IT services and corporate data. Data protection, delivered through robust storage solutions, is the connective glue that ties everything together. Hence, storage must be an integral part of the business continuity solution.

The most important thing to remember when developing a virtualization strategy to enable business continuity is that there are many options -- the right solution will depend on where the IT environment is today and where the customer wants to take it in the future. Vendors should review the customer's individualized data center goals from a business outcomes standpoint (such as response times or new application/ services roll out times) and offer technology options to help deliver what the business needs. For major implementations, customers should ask whether there is proven architecture that has been pre-tested as such offerings can dramatically reduce time to implementation, reduce costs, and mitigate risk. Also, customers should insist upon a solution that has simple, centralized administration capabilities – this will make all the difference in successfully maintaining the solution and deriving the greatest value from it.

Notes:

1IDC, IDC's Server Virtualization Maturity Index, Doc #204893, December 2006

2In a poll commissioned by HP, GCR Custom Research surveyed more than 564 IT decision makers worldwide in November-December 2006 regarding their business continuity, availability, and disaster recovery plans and the technologies being used to implement those plans. The survey found that 62 percent of the respondents represented companies with more than $100 million in annual revenue from industries that include manufacturing, health care, education, and financial services.

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John Bennett is worldwide director, business continuity and availability solutions, HP. Bennett has been a leader in the HP TSG Solutions marketing organization since February 2006. Before that he served as a marketing leader in HP's enterprise servers and storage marketing team. Bennett spent 10 years in Digital Equipment Corporation's technical and scientific marketing groups. He can be reached at john.bennett@hp.com; his blog is posted at http://h20325.www2.hp.com/blogs/bennett/.