Jim Shanks is executive vice president and former CIO of CDW, a FORTUNE 500 company.

Dec 31 2009

How Agencies Are Saving Money and Energy with Virtualization

Making the investment case for virtualization.

Among the most universal demands on CIOs in government is that they justify an expenditure today based on it paying off big tomorrow.

It’s the return-on-investment expectation that has become ever more prevalent as agencies take a business-style approach to achieving their missions. In the information technology category, there would appear to be few leaps of technology that can produce a potential for spectacular results like server virtualization can. Virtualization — basically trading physical space on servers for virtual space through software applications — promises measurable savings in three areas: energy, hardware and agility.

“The exciting thing virtualization does is it provides that critical ability to be able to do more with less,” says Aileen Black, vice president of federal sales for VMware. “But probably more than anything, it provides agility. It unties the boundaries from the physical domain of being tied to a server, allowing you to then manage your servers as a file — a virtual machine.”

Green Saves Green

Energy savings come in two ways. Beyond the fact that virtualizing a certain number of servers will let an agency save the cost to power servers, there’s also the cooling load directly associated with keeping the data center humming.

“That’s huge,” says Mark Bowker, an analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group in Milford, Mass. “When you think about it, most data centers were created 10 years ago if we’re lucky, but chances are the data center was created 20 or even 30 years ago. And the cooling load was so much different then than it is today.”

Even some federal skeptics acknowledge that potential for savings exists, specifically in hardware and agility.

“As to a massive ROI, I’ll believe it when I see it,” says Brian Lisle, deputy director of information technology for the Architect of the Capitol. “Server virtualization is, however, going to take the edge off explosive growth in hardware expenditures. And if you don’t do virtualization, it’s going to cost you a lot more at the end of the day.”

Easy Change

The agility factor can prove valuable in a couple of ways. At the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board, it’s in applying virtualization to create testing environments.

“It’s simpler, faster and cheaper than having separate hardware for a test bed,” says the board’s IT director, Charlie Bryant. “You set up a virtual server and configure it, and save that configuration — then you can try whatever you want basically without risk.”

But Bowker also sees agility at play in using virtualization for disaster recovery. Cost savings can be gained by being able to comingle applications from disparate hardware and also, during or after a crisis, by moving a virtual machine from one platform to another. “Because a virtual machine runs in an encapsulated environment, you can take that virtual machine image, copy it, ship it over to a DR site and essentially get up and running immediately on a different piece of hardware. That’s very cool.”


<p>Photo: John Welzenbach</p>