To Serve, Virtually

Packing multiple applications on a single server can save big bucks.
March 1, 2009
Ellen Perlman
By Ellen Perlman  |  Former columnist
Ellen Perlman was a GOVERNING staff writer and technology columnist.

Virtualization: It's one of those terms that sends non-technical types running for the hills. But governments are discovering paybacks in tossing out servers holding individual applications and instead running multiple applications on a single machine. These virtual servers can save on electricity, space and hardware, and they can provide a new set of management tools that makes government technology more nimble.

What exactly is virtualization? It's an abstract concept, for sure, but an important one for techies to be able to explain when asking for dollars to make it happen. Picture an apartment building. Within each unit's walls are a kitchen, a bathroom and a living room. A couple quietly watching television in one apartment doesn't much affect the family celebrating a birthday upstairs. Residents all live separate lives in one tall building.

It's similar with virtualization. Essentially, a virtual server is a computer program that acts like a small server, storing certain files. The programs reside together, compartmentalized in a large server, but with electronic walls separating them.

Clearly, IT departments can cut costs by going virtual. Many single-application servers run at just 10 percent capacity; one virtual server can run several applications at a much higher capacity. And it's more cost-effective to buy one big server than dozens of smaller ones that need frequent replacing.

Moving to virtual servers is not without its complications, however. Just as some neighbors in an apartment building don't get along, not all applications play well together inside the same box. Some applications can't go virtual at all, including any that require a dedicated component, such as a fax card. Systems that handle lots of transactions, like those at a department of motor vehicles, need faster response times than virtual servers are able to provide. Finally, some software vendors are reluctant to support applications that aren't running on "real" servers.

A number of state and local governments have decided those troubles are worth it. Aurora, Colorado, recently was due to replace 50 individual servers. The data center had space for them, but servers generate quite a bit of heat, and the center had reached the limit of its cooling capacity. Rather than paying to install an expensive new air-conditioning system - plus $5,000 for each server - Aurora took the virtual approach.

In Indiana, virtualization is a cornerstone of the state's strategy to condense multiple data centers into one. So far, Indiana has virtualized about 400 of its 1,700 servers. Brian Arrowood, director of operations, thinks another 600 servers will go virtual next year. "Our goal," he says, "is to virtualize as many as make sense without risking what the server was supposed to do in the first place."

While virtualization can save money in the long run, don't think of it as a plug for stopping up any of this year's budget holes. "Some people leave you with the impression it's quick and simple," says Paul McGuckin, a vice president at the technology research company Gartner. The first time around, warns McGuckin, expect a virtualization project to take 12 to 18 months. Subsequent efforts might take half that amount of time.