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Virtual Reality

By Larry Dignan  |  Posted 2005-02-01 Print this article Print

With 'virtual' infrastructure, will it really be possible to automate your technology operations? And manage them remotely? Not yet. But plan on it.

vir·tu·al (vûr choo al) adj.
1. Existing or resulting in essence or effect though not in actual fact, form or name (the virtual extinction of the buffalo).
2. Existing in the mind, especially as a product of the imagination. Used in literary criticism of a text.
3. Computer Science: Created, simulated or carried on by means of a computer or computer network (virtual conversations in a chat room).
Source: Dictionary.com

Apply those definitions to your information-technology department today, and you get: a simulated stack of systems that can automate any network of data centers and let you manage it from anywhere. As by-products, you get vendors that beat the terms "virtualize" and "virtualization" to death—and a concept for managing technology that is largely a product of collective imagination until some key pieces fall into place.

You get Lenny Monsour, general manager of hosting and infrastructure at Inflow, a Thornton, Colo., technology services firm, who wants his systems administrator to no longer deal with security patches or server partitioning. He envisions a world where customers click to request a new application on a server and get the computing power automatically.

You get Niraj Patel, chief information officer of GMAC Commercial Mortgage, who can set up phone service in a remote office anywhere in the country. He does this in minutes, instead of days. He can establish offices wherever mortgage-making is hot.

You get Randy Carter, infrastructure director at chemical maker Rohm and Haas, who thinks he can team up with rival companies to standardize billing and other back-office functions. He then could buy SAP enterprise planning applications by the sip. And have someone host the hardware, saving more money.

All of these technology executives are trying to create a virtual infrastructure for their companies. They now expect hardware and software to work reliably, like a car engine. Their goal is to automate everything they possibly can, even in the data center. And just worry about changing the oil, when maintenance is needed.

"In five years, we expect to have a highly automated company driven by policies we set," Monsour says. And, he adds, "Compliance to policies will be mandated by systems, not people."

The net result: "We'll have a lot fewer systems administrators and a lot more business analysts devising ways to become more efficient."

Research firm Gartner predicts that 40% of personal computers shipped in 2008 will include virtualization technology that will allow their electronic brains to be shared in corporate-wide computing grids.

And according to a Forrester survey released in December, 29% of technology executives say they plan to buy software that will allow them to manage servers automatically—and break down the capacity of existing servers into farms of virtual units.

Meanwhile, 82% of executives surveyed by Forrester were at least interested in installing automated server patch management systems in 2005. At Inflow, Monsour is hoping to have most change management requests automated by mid-year. Where he used to have one administrator for every 66 servers, he now has one for every 150.

Are Monsour and friends nearing the time when they can run their departments on autopilot? Not quite.

Standards to ensure communication between applications and hardware are sketchy. Morale will be an issue, as day-to-day work becomes automated (see "Virtual People?" p. 20). Competing vendors may not support their applications if they reside on the same servers. Companies still must document processes before they can automate them. And many, if not most, companies must first consolidate their hardware and software into a single set of applications, usable data and communications before they can really think of automating the engines of their multi-million- and billion-dollar businesses.

Besides, how this will all work out is being invented as these executives go along. "Before you get to utopia, you have to be prepared to handle problems and potential problems virtually," says Michael Carlson, vice president of business transformation at Xcel Energy. "It may require knowledge of the business you may not have."

Nevertheless, these executives are determined to get there. Here's why.

If a company with 400 servers consolidates just 15% of those machines, it could save nearly $713,400 annually, according to an estimate by Baseline Business Information Services. And, of course, automating data operations has much the same effect as automation of the factory floor or the finance function: A company can do more work with less staff; some staff can be assigned to projects that drive growth in sales; and others can be put on technical work that will create new topline or bottom-line results.

Here's a five-year plan that can jump-start your business toward Carlson's virtual utopia.

Business Editor
Larry formerly served as the East Coast news editor and Finance Editor at CNET News.com. Prior to that, he was editor of Ziff Davis Inter@ctive Investor, which was, according to Barron's, a Top-10 financial site in the late 1990s. Larry has covered the technology and financial services industry since 1995, publishing articles in WallStreetWeek.com, Inter@ctive Week, The New York Times, and Financial Planning magazine. He's a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism.
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