Q&A with Kent Christensen, practice manager with Datalink (http://www.datalink.com/):

Chris MacKinnon (DCP): Why are unified virtual infrastructures useful in today’s enterprise data centers?

Christensen: A dramatic transformation in the way Information Technology (IT) departments operate has put their directors and managers at a crossroads. On one side, IT administrators are under pressure to deliver higher levels of service and be more responsive to enabling competitive business objectives. On the other side, IT departments are equally pressured to limit budgets, “do more with less,” and show positive ROI from optimization initiatives.

Savvy IT leaders are beginning to resolve both sides of this conflict by rethinking their virtualization strategies. Virtualization was originally a way to improve utilization of physical servers. Now it’s being expanded to turn entire data centers into dynamic, agile, services-oriented architectures — ones that accelerate business objectives and competitiveness.

Data center virtualization is a rare opportunity for IT. The potential cost savings are tremendous. The efficient sharing of physical server, storage, and network resources translates into far lower capital purchases and operating expenses. Wasteful application “silos” are eliminated. Data centers can support more applications, implement them faster, and maintain higher service levels. Data center virtualization also gives IT managers and admins powerful new tools for resource scheduling, data protection, and disaster recovery. And while the prospect of low-cost, no-fuss cloud computing from outside vendors is tempting, it’s not ready for prime time due to serious performance and security issues.

Instead, an IT department can use data center virtualization to build its own private cloud, delivering the same economies and efficiencies to the organization. Then, once the public cloud matures, IT can buy resources from third parties as needed to meet unexpected demands or offload resource-intensive tasks.

MacKinnon: Why should data center and IT managers care about  unified virtual infrastructures ? How can they benefit from them?

Christensen: Virtualization across the data center can provide notable savings on floor space, power, and cooling costs, as well as utilization of existing assets across servers, storage, and networks. While the financial benefits alone are compelling, the largest gains can be obtained by reducing complexity and streamlining the speed at which IT accelerates the business.

Instead of building separate infrastructures according to the needs of individual applications, data center virtualization lets you build a dynamic platform of infrastructure that supports all applications. Abstracting applications from physical resources gives you managed capabilities that you can’t get from physical hardware. These include:

– The ability to migrate live applications from one physical server to another without disruption
– Increased availability for applications during hardware failure
– Resource scheduling and load balancing across existing infrastructure
– Improved backup and disaster recovery
– Increased performance, scale, and security
– Integration with storage and network infrastructures

The result is a platform that will support many—if not most—IT applications. The availability, performance, and security are provided by the platform, which reduces the need to build those services into each individual application. The resulting common infrastructure is much more flexible and agile. This is also the framework for expanding to an internal private cloud infrastructure.

MacKinnon: Where should unified virtual data center infrastructures rank in terms of overall priority in the data center?

Christensen: A recent survey (Source: Gartner Executive Programs – January 2012) by Gartner called out that cloud computing ranks #3 on a list of top ten priorities for CIOs in 2012.

What are the biggest challenges for data center and IT managers when it comes to unifying and virtualizing their data centers?
There can be a lot of obstacles to building a virtual data center. Virtualization is still new in many ways and not fully understood outside of the core IT group. There can be disagreements due to the number and complexity of solutions, and the fact that they cross multiple disciplines. As you map out your virtualization strategy, consider the barriers to adoption, both inside and outside your organization.

Internal barriers fall into two groups: politics and culture, and new ways to think about IT. Most organizations use a variety of applications running on different platforms. Each has its own requirements for networking and storage resources and may have different requirements for access and availability. Multiple applications and technologies can lead to isolated islands of data and potential interoperability issues. In addition, the stakeholders who helped build those applications likely have entrenched policies and attitudes that are not easily changed. As a result, many organizations have a number of different virtualization initiatives directed by different groups within the company. Server teams may not be in sync with application administrators, and storage or networking teams may take a completely different and uncoordinated approach. A unified approach may disrupt the “corporate culture” and can create some internal conflict where decisions could potentially be based on relationships and alliances rather than sound business principles.

Virtualization also requires new skills. Many people need time to think it through. But thinking is good because building an internal cloud requires a lot of planning based on an understanding of exactly what the business needs. It’s an incremental process, taking the time to think through where you want to go and how you will accomplish it.

External barriers largely come from disagreement within the industry on how to proceed. No two storage or network virtualization vendors agree on how to design and deploy a virtualization strategy. Reliable interoperability standards have not yet emerged. That’s why it’s prudent to work with a vendor-agnostic consultant such as Datalink. Whereas many manufacturers can only push their products and services, we look at a plethora of options, making our customer’s success our first priority.

MacKinnon: How can data center and IT managers overcome those challenges?

Christensen: The first and most important step is to create a vision and lead to that vision. As a board or CEO considers outside service providers (or cloud providers) as experts at delivering IT services internal IT organizations are challenged with creating a competitive operation. The opportunity for IT leadership is to think and act like a service provider to the organization. What are the services the organization needs not only maintain existing operations but gain a competitive advantage? And how can IT most efficiently deliver those services to the organization reliably and efficiently.

If you look at a cloud service provider as an example, many IT organizations come to the logical conclusion that they can provide services more reliably and at a reduced cost by building a highly efficient internal or private cloud that is designed to support the organization.

Armed with a goal to create a highly competitive and efficient operation IT leaders need to provide leadership to break down existing silos or thought, design and even procurement and raise the bar of IT to what is required to holistically deliver the services the organization requires. This is where a unified data center architecture can accelerate the mission to create unified orchestrated data centers that are both highly efficient and agile to drive business needs.

MacKinnon: What advice can you give to IT and data center managers that have a plethora of similar solutions to choose from?

The challenges with building an internal private cloud are threefold. One is that no single vendor or solution delivers complete unified private cloud architecture. As a result, organizations either need a partner that can assemble a complete solution or IT has to continue to sort out the solutions themselves. An integrator like Datalink with experience in delivering complete unified architectures and helps align best of breed solutions against the organizations requirements.

The second is that a pre-defined private cloud architecture in most cases will not fit a particular organization’s objectives. Many times, IT will determine they do need agile unified resources with which are elastic and measures but chose, for example, to limit the use of self service or charge back. So working with an integrator that can align objectives is important.

Finally, it’s important to recognize that most organizations cannot simply stop existing operations and transform over night. A flexible solution should be able to both leverage existing infrastructure and grow as the business objectives dictate. Working with a solution that can migrate you toward an IT as a Service private cloud vs. selling you a complete solution all at once is the most common approach.