Virtual... but really happening
From applications to storage to that all-encompassing future we know as web services, virtualisation is making strides. Quocirca's Jon Collins explains...
Given the current downturn in the technology market - and the fortunes of many within it - any comparisons between IT and nuclear fusion may appear over the top, not to mention in bad taste.
It is true, however, that the major steps taken by the industry over the years (client/server computing, the WWW and mobile technologies to name but three) have been made as a result of convergence, the coming together of a number of technologies.
Whatever the naysayers might argue (and they do have the soapbox), the results have been big bangs rather than idle whimpers. Ecommerce may have been more hype than substance but who would give up their web browsers or email access? The mobile market may have been over-hyped but who would hand back their cellphones or palmtops? Behind the hype lies real substance.
Spend might have dried up for the moment but progress continues as previously disparate areas of IT overlap and merge. Let us consider some realities. Despite continuing fears of brown-outs, the bandwidth offered by the internet continues to grow while its costs continue to decrease. However, the complexity of IT infrastructures continues on an upward curve. The increased bandwidth and reduced cost of internet access make outsourcing of applications or infrastructure increasingly attractive. Finally - and here's the curve ball - we have web services.
Maybe we'd better pause for a moment to remember what web services are all about. Consider the following: a software application can be thought of as a set of software elements, each dealing with one part of functionality. These software elements can communicate using defined protocols and mechanisms across a network. They do not need to reside on the same machine.
Leap of faith time: they can be situated anywhere in the world and they can be managed by any third party.
Second leap of faith: anything that can be provided as a service can also be provided as a web service. After all, the tag refers only to the fact that a standard communications protocol has been adopted.
Does this mean that the hypemeisters Microsoft, Oracle, Sun et al are right after all? Yes but not even in the way that they would expect. Web services aren't the answer but taken together with enough bandwidth and managed outsourcing of services from trusted third parties, they are the enabler to the virtualised infrastructure. And that really is the answer.
The CIO of any organisation has, essentially, two problems to solve. The first is to have applications that meet the needs of both internal staff and customers. The second is to have sufficient storage resource to cope with the amount of data that needs to be managed day by day.
Both problems are dynamic: they do not stand still long enough to be solved and the solutions need to take into account a plethora of existing systems and storage devices.
They also need to consider that the new-and-improved solutions of today will be the old and inferior legacy applications and devices of tomorrow. What if to create an application, a CIO can select application parts off the shelf and assemble them to make an application to fit his needs? That is the vision of web services. Each service can be defined according to the business processes it needs to support, then used as the basis of a build, re-use, buy or rent decision. Why build something when it can be bought or rented more cheaply?
But similarly, why buy when functionality already exists in-house? Web services offer the choice, and this is becoming more substance than hype as web services are becoming the de facto standard for inter- and intra-application communications. This is not hype: it is happening today in many organisations. There is nary a storage provider that is not marketing utility pricing models for its storage and there are few that have not signed up to the standardisation efforts to enable further integration and virtual access.
Second, the storage market is rapidly (really) evolving to take into account CIOs' needs to manage their storage as a single, virtual pool, independent of hardware constraints, either as a single addressable service within an organisation or as a shared hosted service. As discussed before, issues of vendor standardisation remain but they are recognised and are being dealt with (expect progress over the next 18 months).
It is not enough to have such a pool of storage without facilities to manage, allocate and secure it. These facilities are driven by the applications. And what better to use as a communications mechanism with the applications, than web services. Again, this is not pie in the sky: vendors have already cottoned on to this, and some have already implemented web services interfaces into their storage management offerings.
There is a final piece in the virtualised infrastructure puzzle. Where, and how exactly, does the application run? The slightly surrealist answer is yes, it does. As the application has been broken up and distributed, so is its execution as a complete system. Outsourced, rented application elements will be processed (with suitable service guarantees) by trusted third parties, in tandem with in-house services running on in-house or hosted hardware. Something needs to be in control, to ensure that the piece parts are interoperating correctly and meeting their respective service levels. It does not take a rocket scientist to work out that, once again, a standardisation to web services-based protocols yields an ideal mechanism.
Here is convergence in all its glory, allowing CIOs to focus on the problems it has to solve, rather than the knock-on effects of trying to manage disparate, uncoordinated microcosms of technology.
The key benefit is return on investment, as you only implement what you need to add value to the business. Need a new application? Write the shopping list, plug together and play. Need more storage? Click to buy as much (or little) as your business needs. Maybe this is starting to enter the realms of fantasy but only for the moment. Driven by customers in a hostile market, vendors are working together as never before to make this vision a reality. Whether they know it or not.
**Quocirca is a leading, user-facing analyst house known for its focus on the 'big picture'. For a full summary of its activities see www.quocirca.com, or reach the company's founding directors by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.