Virtual infrastructure, at your servers

Thin clients, make way for a new competitor: hosted, virtual servers and desktops are finally changing the way corporate Australia manages its IT infrastructure.
Written by David Braue, Contributor

Thin clients, make way for a new competitor: hosted, virtual servers and desktops are finally changing the way corporate Australia manages its IT infrastructure.

Whether known as apps-on-tap, utility computing, Web services or computing on demand, one thing remains the same: IT vendors have for years been trying to develop a seamless way to provide applications online, doing away with the long-held truth that applications run on desktops and data is managed by servers.

So far, however, vendors have fallen short of delivering the vision of on-demand computing -- where processing cycles and applications come out of the wall network cable like water from a spout. The closest we've come so far is managed services, which have gradually crept through the enterprise as ever-improving offerings convinced companies to expand simple Web site hosting to include managed servers, managed storage, managed security, and most recently managed voice over IP.

Especially for smaller companies, allowing another company to deal with the nitty-gritty of keeping your systems running has proved to be an ideal solution. Web services added another wrinkle to this, since they involve another company running the applications and only giving you access to their data.

Thanks to the rapidly expanding world of virtualisation, however, companies trying to provide a complete utility computing service may have finally found the most viable solution. New approaches to application virtualisation, desktop virtualisation, and server virtualisation technologies each provide critical pieces of the puzzle that could eventually see your entire IT infrastructure sourced and managed from outside your office's four walls.

Servers at a whim
The idea of hosted servers isn't new: companies have long been happy to pay third-party providers to store application servers in their own data centres, looking after the systems on behalf of the customer. More recently, however, the idea has taken on a new angle as hosting providers use server virtualisation to offer servers on demand, so customers can get more computing power without requiring any more equipment on their side.

... the complexity and costs of a virtualisation environment mean SMBs haven't had the chance to get involved in it.

Anoosh Manzdoori, managing director, Vigabyte

Hosting provider SmartyHost, for one, recently launched a servers-on-demand offering through newly minted subsidiary Vigabyte. For a flat fee of AU$49 per month, Vigabyte sells casual access to server capacity; for their money, customers get access to a virtual server of their own, built around one of the many virtual disk image (VDI) files that Vigabyte maintains in its library.

This on-demand capacity offers tantalising possibilities: if a company needs an additional 20 Web servers to accommodate expected demand for a new product launch, for example, they can simply go into Vigabyte's SPANL (SmartyHost Control Panel) service and set up additional virtual servers that are ready within minutes. Alternatively, a company doing load and scalability testing on a new production environment might enlist the support of several dozen additional servers for the job. In each case, the server images run on Vigabyte's own high-end servers without any involvement from the customer.

Rapid availability and lack of entry and exit barriers has made the solution popular, with more than 100 customers signing up during the service's trial phase earlier this year. Vigabyte maintains its own bank of Sun Microsystems servers, running VMware on around 100TB of Hitachi Data Systems storage, to ensure the venture can achieve adequate economies of scale. Co-location inside Optus's Sydney datacentre means telecommunications bandwidth isn't a problem.

"This infrastructure is a big investment, but it allows us to move up the supply chain and move into the corporate market with something that is quite unique and of value," says Vigabyte managing director Anoosh Manzoori, who believes the casual terms and predictable costs of the Vigabyte offering will make it particularly appealing for small and medium businesses (SMBs). "Over the past few years, the large corporate market has really had the first bite of virtualisation, but the complexity and costs of a virtualisation environment mean SMBs haven't had the chance to get involved in it."

Vigabyte's offering expands a market that was pioneered by Sun Microsystems' Sun Grid Compute Utility, which was launched in 2003 and offers on-demand computing capacity for US$1 per CPU-hour. The Sun service, however, is designed for somewhat more casual usage, while the virtual server model provides systems that can be maintained for longer periods.

Desktops on demand
Servers aren't the only infrastructure getting the on-demand treatment: with virtualisation success confirming it is a reliable hosting technique, some companies are extending the concept into the sacrosanct realm of the corporate desktop.

Desktops have traditionally posed problems for service providers, who have had to strike the right balance between unchecked personalisation and rigidly controlled standardisation. Hosting desktops as virtual images, all running simultaneously on large-scale server farms, resolves both problems by giving users their own desktops, all controlled by an industrial-strength hypervisor (technology such as VMware's ESX Server, which juggles system resources between many virtual machines at once).

We're trying to do the whole virtual desktop more and more now ... we want to simplify the whole desktop experience.

Jason Serda, managing director, BlueFire

Thin-client technology, particularly that from Citrix Systems, has long been accepted as a way of offering similar functionality. However, thin-client-based environments all offer access to the same server environment; with a virtual desktop, each image can be running whatever operating system is necessary. That's made it popular for hosting provider BlueFire, which recently added virtual desktop hosting to a roster of services that includes virtual server hosting and management of Citrix-based desktops for more than 150 corporate clients.

Around 60 percent of BlueFire's customers access the apps using ICA-based Wyse desktop terminals, with the other 40 percent being mobile users using ICA on their own notebook PCs. Costs starting at around AU$200 per user per month compare favourably with the many thousands of dollars per year that analysts attribute to the average desktop's total cost of ownership (TCO).

Managing director Jason Serda believes the addition of hosted desktops will expand the company's appeal to an even broader range of clients. "We're trying to do the whole virtual desktop more and more now," he says. "We want to simplify the whole desktop experience, and part of that is to reduce the complexity and keep a lot of this in the datacentre. They just want to know the infrastructure is sound and that they can rely on us."

Available bandwidth is critical to ensuring that customers can access hosted virtual desktops without the latency or technical compromises that have been associated with remote access. To this end, BlueFire also manages telecommunications access for its customers, continually adjusting available bandwidth to ensure the user experience isn't compromised.

Apps on impulse
Virtualisation may have enabled easier delivery of desktop and servers, but a growing range of options is taking virtualisation to a completely new level as it is increasingly used to deliver applications as well as computing power.

Because virtual machines are nothing more than files on disk, many service providers are experimenting with delivering not just applications, but entire preconfigured systems, to customers as VDI files that are ready to mount in a virtual server environment.

This approach avoids potential conflicts between applications and allows hosting providers -- or companies' internal IT divisions -- to maintain libraries of ready-to-go servers and desktops filled with the right applications for a particular job role or functional purpose. An office clerk, for example, might be given a desktop image with nothing more than Windows Vista and Microsoft Office installed, while an engineer might be set up with a VDI file incorporating AutoCAD, Maya and other design and visualisation tools.

In the long term, this sort of application packaging -- which does away with the need to install applications at all -- will be used to stream applications to your desktop just like you might currently stream a YouTube video.

Application virtualisation tools from companies like Altiris and DataSynapse make this inherently possible, but a more common option in the long term is likely to be Microsoft's SoftGrid technology, which uses technology it acquired from application provider Softricity and now offers in the Microsoft Desktop Optimization Pack.

This tool runs applications in closely guarded "sandboxes" that include all necessary DLL libraries and other components needed by the applications. Using Windows Media-like streaming, these packaged applications are streamed to users' desktops in two parts: Feature Block 1 includes all core components, while Feature Block 2 includes extra, modular bits that are streamed on an as-needed basis.

"Application compatibility, regression testing and so on are huge costs in terms of managing desktops," says Leon Booth, US-based solutions sales professional for SoftGrid and Desktop Optimization Pack with Microsoft. "It's the thing that holds companies back from deploying applications quickly. If you have three applications that interact with each other and need to work together, you can virtualise them together. And they will interact as normal."

The ability to provide server, desktop and even applications on demand seemed fanciful a decade ago, but innovative applications of virtualisation technology have opened up completely new ways for businesses to access the IT services they require. It has taken a while for the "computing-on-demand" vision to eventuate, but technology has finally caught up with the vision -- promising new options for companies seeking to minimise costs and complexity in the long term.

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