IBM: Virtualisation is the real deal

Summary:IBM’s head of virtualisation is on a mission to spread the word about a technology that is reshaping the structure of IT around the world

Systems programming has a new, hip word — virtualisation. It has captured the hearts of IT professionals in small and large companies with its promise of freedom from the tyranny of hardware.

Think your company has invested in the wrong database technology? Virtualise it. Not happy with the hardware? Virtualise it. Virtualisation offers the promise of running more or less anything, more or less anywhere.

IBM can lay claim to have invented the concept through the virtualisation, which 10 years ago had almost vanished from use. Now it plays a key role in the company's plans for the future. EMC may have stolen the virtual crown with its purchase of the hugely popular VMware, but Big Blue wants to take it back.

ZDNet UK talked to the man charged with guiding this offensive, IBM's vice-president for virtualisation, Richard Lechner, to find out where IBM is going with virtualisation, what benefits it offers customers and if virtualisation is so important to IBM, why did it not buy VMware when they had the chance?

Q: How did you come to head up IBM's virtualisation push?
A: 20 years ago, I was a coder doing device microcode for banking terminals, ATMs and so on. Then I did OS/2 development, worked on NDS development and was then a salesperson for the software group. Then I was director of strategy for the software business worldwide, where we had our initial engagements with Red Hat and SuSE and then I helped define our strategy around e-business and enterprise Java. I was in mainframes for five years, looking at taking advantage of our virtualisation capabilities on the mainframe and leveraging Linux on the mainframe. I spent the past two years in storage where storage virtualisation was a key element in our strategy.

Why is virtualisation important to IBM, and what's your top-level strategy?
Virtualisation is a key enabler for our strategy of on-demand. There is a lot of interest in virtualisation but if you were to ask 10 people what it means you would probably get 11 different answers. You could define virtualisation as the abstraction of physical resources to better integrate across your infrastructure and to get better use of those resources.

We assume our clients have a heterogeneous environment so we intend to differentiate our hardware through the virtualisation capabilities built into the hardware based on our mainframe heritage. So we provide virtualisation across our systems, assuming heterogeneous resources so we help our clients work across diverse infrastructures.

We cover about 80 percent of what's out there, and about 100 percent of what's out there in terms of storage. On the server side we manage our own servers, as you would expect. We integrate very well with VMware, and we can support certain levels of HP-UX and Solaris as well as the key Linux distributions.

So if a client has a mixed environment of Intel servers, RISC servers, Unix, Linux, mainframe, storage devices, networking and the storage fabric, Cisco and Brocade and so on, and we can help them with a very large percentage of that.

I do think that kind of holistic approach is unique in the industry today.

How do you explain to a layman, someone working in a financial brokerage say, how virtualisation can help him?
Let me say first that it is a mistake to characterise virtualisation as something only for big companies. More than half, in fact more than 60 percent, of our virtualisation clients are what we characterise as small and medium businesses — less than 1,000 employees. So virtualisation is a technology that is being embraced by a pretty broad sector.

I categorise it in three ways. The first is that there is a significant reduction in TCO in a number of ways. All of our clients are worried about growth per server. Their server farms show unbridled growth. This very large growth is against the background of a very lightly utilised asset. Then even though the cost of hardware is dropping, the costs of software, management and people are not. So from a TCO perspective we can offer the client a chance to get substantially better use out of the assets they already have, reduce the growth rate in servers and storage. In the storage domain in particular, we can help them to eliminate a lot of the redundancy — in having to store multiple copies of the data.

Also, a lot of our clients are worried about this whole area of resiliency. They are being asked by the board to implement this and they have these complex and fragile infrastructures that are hard to make resilient and are expensive to make resilient. By simplifying the infrastructure, it makes it easier to mirror it, and the virtualisation capability also allows clients to have more flexibility in terms of what they deploy at headquarters and what they deploy at a secondary site.

Instead of running both sites "hot, hot", then many clients are more than willing to employ secondary technology if they are only using the secondary site for failover. You cannot do that in the physical world, especially in storage. Storage vendors mandate that you have the same, exact technology at the secondary site that you have at the primary site.

The second major benefit is shared access through a virtualised, integrated infrastructure. There are a lot of benefits through SOA and SOI and this whole integration thing, with the sharing of data and the elimination of redundant data to allow applications to more freely co-operate with each other, which allows your business processes to be more flexible and to interact with each other. Virtualisation allows that to occur.

We have many clients who are afraid to touch their infrastructures because they have allowed them to become so fragile and interwoven. If you can...

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Topics: Developer


Colin has been a computer journalist for some 30 years having started in the business the same year that the IBM PC was launched, although the first piece he wrote was about computer audit. He was at one time editor of Computing magazine in London and prior to that held a number of editing jobs, including time spent at the late DEC Compu... Full Bio

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