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Tech Watch: Virtualization-ready servers built for the job

Virtualization-ready servers bring multi-core CPUs, extra memory and embedded hypervisors to the job.

The wider availability of dual-core and quad-core processors from Intel and Advanced Micro Devices has inspired the emergence of "virtualization-ready" servers. More simply put, they are endowed with multi-core processors, extra memory, embedded hypervisors and more integrated I/O and are capable of handling the demands of server virtualization software with grace.

The virtualization-ready positioning isn't purely hype. As virtualization becomes more mainstream across both small and midsized enterprises, vendors and VARs are beefing up the hardware foundations to shore up reliability, expand management options and ensure application performance.

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Dell, IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Sun Microsystems are jockeying for mindshare as the best virtualization platform provider, even as they seek to skirt the impression that they're offering a cookie-cutter approach. The reason is obvious: Physical server shipments are slipping.

Last year, worldwide server shipments grew about 2% overall, but unit shipments slipped 12% in the fourth quarter of 2008, according to IDC's Worldwide Quarterly Server Tracker. The sharpest decline came in the x86 volume server segment, where shipments fell about 11.7% to 1.8 million units in the fourth quarter.

"If people are going to be buying [fewer] servers, then the manufacturers need to embrace this, wrap their minds around it and really support virtualization," said Ronnie Parisella, chief technology officer for New York-based Primary Support Solutions Inc., an enterprise technology services provider.

VARs say that very few customers request virtualization-ready hardware, but that they are easily sold on its value during the design phase of a virtualization project.

The appeal of virtualization-ready servers

"The real key isn't in the CPU, it's in the platform," said Ron Mente, client solutions executive and x86 brand advocate for Micro Strategies Inc., an enterprise VAR based in Denville, N.J. That said, a virtualization-ready server starts with a quad-core or 8-core processor with a ton of memory and storage capacity. "You need a great RAM-to-CPU ratio and great I/O bandwidth. [ You also need] the ability to virtualize the other things, such as the network or the storage identity of the server," Mente said.

IBM has been talking up the virtualization-ready server concept for several years, starting with work and technology extensions within its Power server line. Interestingly, that was the one line where IBM reported improved demand in the fourth quarter of 2008, according to the latest IDC report.

Scott Handy, vice president of IBM Power Systems, said the virtualization stack built into IBM's power servers take advantage of a high-speed Ethernet interconnect in order to accelerate performance. Its PowerVM hypervisor technology can be closely managed so that real and virtual servers are considered a pool of resources that can be balanced according to the workload. Management is a key component for any well-built virtualization stack, Handy said.

Here are some other recent product developments that are worth closer examination by solution providers seeking to represent servers optimized for virtualization deployments.

  • Late last year, Hewlett-Packard Co. introduced the HP ProLiant DL385 G5p, which was designed to handle virtualization projects for small and midsized businesses. The system can accommodate up to twice the memory (up to 16 DIMMS) and comes with double the networking interconnects. At its heart is a Quad-Core AMD Opteron 2300 Series processor.
  • Sun Microsystems Inc. introduced two small and medium-sized businesses' virtualization solution configurations earlier this year that build on either VMware ESX or Microsoft Hyper-V software. The software comes in pretested server and storage configurations, building on the Sun Fire X4150, Sun Fire X4250 or Sun Fire X4450 server lines.
  • In late March, Dell Inc. came out with new PowerEdge servers based on the Intel Xeon 5500 processor (code-named Nehalem). The servers include embedded hypervisors, a memory footprint that has been enhanced by up to 125% and more integrated I/O for better performance. They support hypervisors from VMware, Citrix and Microsoft.

Anthony Dina, director of solutions marketing for Dell, said the company designed the latest generation of PowerEdge systems with an eye to helping customers speed virtualization deployments. "You can power it on, and it is ready for workloads from Day 1," he said.

This is not a standalone design consideration. The company will continue optimizing the main part of its server portfolio to better serve virtualization needs, he said.

Indeed, IT solution providers say one key benefit of virtualization-ready servers is simplicity of deployment. "Using a virtualization-ready system can save me a couple of steps when setting up the computer," said Primary Support's Parisella. "It can eliminate some things that typically would require manual steps."

What's more, virtualization-ready hardware helps solution providers save time during ongoing management and maintenance of server infrastructure, as in server migrations, for example. "If the client is virtualized, I buy another server, I point it at the old server, copy one file across, turn off the old one, turn on the new one, and no one knows the difference," Parisella said.

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