Sunday, 27 February 2011

The Virtualisation war - Microsoft versus EMC

What is virtualisation?
In the past organisations ran a specific software application on a physical server. They sized the server (how much memory, disk space, CPU capacity etc.) based on recommendations from the software vendor. That server typically would only be used to run that single application.
This was fine except that in practice very few applications need all the server capacity all of the time. A typical scenario would show that the servers were running at 5%-20% of their capacity, but occasionally the application would spike to 80% utilisation.
Therefore in an organisation with 100 x servers, 80% of their capacity was sitting unused most of the time. However the companies involved had invested an upfront cost in the server hardware and also had to pay for operational costs such as hardware support, operating system upgrades and the personnel to manage and upgrade these 100 x servers. Other costs include the electrical power to feed these servers and, in some cases, the cost of hosting these servers with a third party.
Then along came virtualisation and it’s most prominent exponent, VMware, now part of EMC. More than any other vendor, VMware popularised the concept and use of virtualisation. Their software allows users to run multiple “Virtual Machines” on a single physical server.
Advantages of Virtualisation
Using the example above, an organisation can reduce the number of physical servers dramatically, but maintain the same number of applications. Thereby reducing the initial cost of purchasing server hardware and reducing the operational costs, less physical servers means lower hardware support costs, lower management costs, lower power and hosting costs.
VMware offer customers a free to use application which sits on their servers and over a period of time calculates the actual usage of the various applications being monitored. In a recent example where I was involved it showed that an organisation using 90 x physical servers could reduce this down to 10 and still have the processing capacity to allow their applications to run effectively.
Other advantages include the time in providing new “virtual servers” is much less than the time it takes to deploy a new physical server. Also it provides an ideal way to test a new application and then effectively delete that virtual server and free up its resources when the test period is complete.
The clash begins
Everything was going fine for VMware whose main competitor was Citrix, and then along came the mighty Microsoft who decided they would like a slice of the lucrative virtualisation market.
Microsoft launched “Hyper-V” which provides the same functionality as VMware when it comes to server virtualisation. However, when you speak to technical personnel trained and experienced in both technologies, they will without exception tell you VMware has superior functionality and additional management features over and above those found in Hyper-V.
So, EMC, who own the VMware technology have nothing to fear then?
They have a huge installed base and a technically superior product?
Well no, because people buy technology products not simply based on technical features and benefits, commercial reasons always come into play and this is where Microsoft is winning ground against EMC.
In a recent project I was involved in the customer already had a small deployment of VMware and where perfectly happy with it. However when they decided to virtualise the majority of their 90 x servers, Microsoft came calling and offered them a deal they couldn’t refuse. They offered the Hype-V licenses free of charge and also offered them $32,000 towards the cost of implementing their software via their chosen Microsoft reseller / partner. This saved them the equivalent of over $60,000 compared to purchasing VMware licenses and paying the VMware reseller / partner to install and configure the software. In return the company involved agreed to be a site reference for Microsoft and allow them to write and publish a case study detailing their deployment of Hyper-V.
Using sales tactics like these will ensure Microsoft seed the market with Hyper-V installations and raise awareness of this product within the general IT marketplace.
So who will win the virtualisation war?
I believe in a few years time VMware, and Citrix will inevitably lose some of their customers to Microsoft, but there are a growing number of large commercial organisations who are resisting the all pervasive Microsoft licensing push where Microsoft try to persuade companies to deploy Microsoft everywhere from the desktop to the applications, data bases and server operating systems. These companies will continue to use and deploy VMware and will resist the temptation to go for “free with strings attached” offers from Microsoft.
The other marketing advantage EMC has to fend off the Microsoft attack is their alliance with Cisco.
Ciscos’ highly motivated and highly paid sales personnel (I know because I was one) are out there now pushing their vision of virtualisation which includes their server hardware, the chassis based UCS, and they include bundles of VMware software which are supported directly by Cisco’s technical support department, SMARTNET.
As Microsoft is simultaneously trying to eat into the Cisco IP Telephony market with their latest release of “OCS”, there seems little common ground between these two powerful vendors.
The ultimate threat to Microsoft would be if Cisco were to purchase EMC allowing them to provide a complete hardware and software solution to customers looking for virtualisation solutions.
In that event, Microsoft’s Hyper-V may remain a bit player up against the combined strengths of Cisco/ EMC technology and their considerable marketing efforts.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Why isn’t everyone using video conferencing?

For years vendors such as Tandberg, Cisco and Polycom have been saying the use of video will become pervasive in the workplace. The reasons sound sensible and convincing; reduced travel and accommodation costs, better use of employee’s time, better work / life balance.
So why isn’t everyone using video conferencing?
When speaking to organisations that have video conferencing I seem to get two reactions, yes we do use it, its fine and no we bought some kit years ago, but never get it working properly and its collecting dust in a corner office.
There’s no doubt in the past the configuration and use of video conferencing systems has not been user friendly. Recently an IT manager said to me, “We have Tandberg video conferencing kit, but it’s not used much.” The reason being in their case that the people it was intended to be used by were the senior management of the company who were technophobes. Although to be fair he did mention network issues and having to type in IP addresses prior to being able to use the system, not something many senior managers would be comfortable doing?
In the past when I’ve spoken to people considering investing in video conferencing, the main objection is not the cost of the equipment; instead it’s the cost of the network connectivity. Just a few years ago high definition video required greater than 10M bandwidth. Two things have made the pill easier to swallow; the cost of bandwidth has halved and the codec’s have been able to compress the huge amount of data required for HD video down to a more manageable size.
Another reason for the lack of uptake of high end systems is the cost of the room facilities. Not the cost of the active kit, but the associated video screens and audio equipment. In a recent proposal I saw these peripheral items amounted to $20K before taking into account the network and video kit costs.
Perhaps the most difficult reason to overcome when considering implementation of a high end video conferencing system is the idea that “we have always had face to face meetings”, so we’ll just carry on in the same vein. This is an attitude issue and will never be addressed by improvements in the technology or reductions in implementation costs.
HR guidelines
As in the recent George Clooney film “Up In The Air”, Human Resources management may dislike the idea of certain formal meetings being done via video conferencing. Although a friend of mine did actually get the sack via video recently, but then he did work for a video conferencing vendor?

Desk Top Video Conferencing
One thing is undisputed; the use of personal, low cost video conferencing is certainly taking off. In 2009/10 BT’s conferencing revenues increased by 400%, due in part to the volcanic ash cloud restricting flights and the recession forcing companies to cut back on travel costs.
Low cost video conferencing as offered by Cisco’s Webex and Microsoft’s Live Meeting is easy to use, relatively inexpensive and in terms of equipment is very easy to setup. On my PC, it passed the “no user guide” test in that I had connected the small Microsoft web cam and installed Cisco Webex without reading the installation instructions or doing and formal training. In use I found it simple and genuinely useful with the one click button to share my desktop. It worked fine over my 2M broadband circuit.
Maybe Video Conferencing’s time has finally come?

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Is Cloud Computing all hype and no substance

Cloud Computing is the bandwagon to jump on for all the major IT vendors, but is it real or just so much "talk".

It certainly is real in terms of the money invested in cloud technology by companies like IBM, HP and DELL. However, are real world IT users making the move toward using cloud based services from these vendors or not?

The problem is what the definition is of "cloud computing".

Microsoft could, with some justification, call Hotmail a cloud based service as could Google with their "docs", but these seem pale pictures in comparison to Amazon's web services offering with the colour it provides the user in terms of virtual machine build options and self service capability.

So, why are IT users still buying physical servers by the truck load from HP and DELL?

In discussions with potential cloud based users there are several reasons given for their reluctance to make the leap.

  • security
  • face to face contract negotiation
  • job protection
  • network resilience


Is our data safe?
Which country is the data centre located in and therefore which legal jurisdiction applies?

face to face contract negotiation

Amazon have built their cloud based offering behind a self service web based portal. Contract terms and conditions appear rigid as you would expect from a "one size fits all" business model.
Unfortunately a lot of medium and large enterprise organisations rely on face to face negotiations with IT vendors not only to agree bespoke terms and conditions but to get re assurance that they are dealing with someone they have confidence in.

job protection

The larger IT departments view cloud computing as a variation on the outsourcing theme with the associated concerns over job security. "If we put our applications in the "cloud" and allow the vendor to manage them, what will we have left to do"? 

network resilience

This is perhaps the least understood area of cloud computing and the easiest hurdle to overcome. Major cloud vendors have a neutral approach when it comes to connectivity into their data centre. Even the major telco / cloud vendors will allow a customer to connect to their cloud based services using a network vendor of their choice and multiple network technologies are supported such as MPLS, Internet and point to point data circuits.