Virtualisation has progressed from being a technology only deployed to allow the partitioning of very expensive mainframe hardware to being used in a range of different ways in organisations around the world.

Richard Garsthagen, technical marketing manager EMEA, for VMware, believes it is one of the hottest topics in the IT industry.

Until very recently virtualisation has been seen as something only suitable for large corporate data centres, but now an increasing amount of smaller organisations are realising the benefits that it can offer.

Virtualisation is an abstraction layer that separates the physical hardware from the software running on top of it, allowing for far greater flexibility and utilisation of IT resources.

For servers, this technology allows multiple virtual machines - even those running on different operating systems - to operate in isolation on the same machine. This means that VMs can be managed, updated and manipulated as easily as files - making provisioning a virtual machine a quick and simple process.

According to Brian Gammage of Gartner, virtualisation is the most disruptive technology to face the PC in a decade, primarily because it has undone what was previously seen as the unbreakable link between hardware and software.

Not just server consolidation

In its early days virtualisation was typically used for server consolidation projects in large data centres, and while this is no longer the only major driving force behind the spread of the technology it remains a primary one.

Virtualisation software allows multiple physical servers to be consolidated on to one piece of hardware as virtual machines. Data centres benefit from far greater utilisation of computer resources; a standard server's utilisation rate typically stands at about 10-15 per cent, whereas a virtualisation server runs at anything up to 80 per cent of resources.

Faced with the rapidly spiralling costs associated with power and space, server consolidation through virtualisation is still proving to be the most effective way of tackling these issues.

However, vendors are keen to point out that the benefits of virtualisation go much further than merely reducing expenditure on hardware and the associated costs.

In particular the growing importance of looking at the environmental costs associated with IT is seeing managers come under more scrutiny than ever to consider the impact of their IT procurement strategies.

Business continuity

Server consolidation has been the first step in many virtualisation projects, but the technology is now being used to develop an effective business continuity solution.

Since entire systems can be easily turned into files and then restored on a target server, recovering from downtime with a virtual machine is a far simpler process than recovering a physical server.

Live running virtual machines can also be moved from one physical system to another while maintaining continuous service availability so hardware issues can be quickly and simply bypassed before they cause downtime. This can help organisations keep systems up to date through patching and applying service packs, without affecting end-user support.

Using virtualisation for business continuity is particularly appealing to small and medium sized businesses without the budget to commit large amounts of money to expensive redundant systems.

Unlike these dedicated solutions, virtualisation software can deliver real benefits alongside disaster recovery planning. In particular, it provides smaller businesses with a platform for easy and rapid growth and can minimise the need for expenditure on new hardware. 

The battle for the desktop

Perhaps the area where virtualisation has made the biggest impact recently is at the desktop level.

What are often referred to as assured computing environments (ACEs) have been seen as an effective way of providing remote staff and contractors with a standard desktop image on which all information is secure and access to applications is strictly controlled.

Centrally hosted virtual desktops (sometimes referred to as virtual desktop infrastructures or VDIs) are a viable and attractive option to terminal services or thin client computing.

The major difference between virtual desktops and other approaches is that users are accessing their own PC environment instead of using a shared application environment.

With VDIs, users interact with a real desktop that looks and behaves like their normal PC. An added benefit of using virtual machines is that each and every user is isolated from each other resulting in improved security.

This is because there is no way for malware to escape from the virtual container, which can also be used to protect end-users from inadvertently becoming infected with a virus.

Faced with the challenge of having to rapidly provide 850 desktops for a new call centre in Mumbai, Prudential decided to implement a VDI solution that would provide remote staff with access to over 100 applications that they required in their daily roles.

Running these applications over a WAN proved problematic due to latency issues, and the costs associated with running 850 PCs was extremely prohibitive.

Using a VDI solution, Prudential has constructed multiple virtual machines, which sit on servers in the UK, and screen, keyboard and mouse information is sent over the network to users.

The industry expands

With the development of increasingly sophisticated virtualisation platforms, a growing number of solutions providers are now looking to provide tools that support and enhance virtualisation technology.

This 'virtualisation community' has developed backup and replication tools for virtual machines and management and monitoring tools for virtual infrastructures. The influence of the open source movement can be felt in the virtualisation space, with a number of key players making moves to open up the technology.

VMware recently made their virtual disk format open and freely available, while both Microsoft and VMware offer free virtualisation software. This is allowing more users to assess how the technology might potentially benefit their organisations.

Various independent initiatives are starting to appear, such as the 'Vacademy', a purpose built facility, which aims to stimulate increased awareness of virtualisation by offering free testing facilities and tutorials for organisations interested in the technology.

The recently launched VDI Alliance is a group of virtualisation vendors who collaborate to build virtual desktop solutions for customers.

Into the future

Virtualisation is genuinely revolutionising the way in which services are provisioned within organisations.

Over the next two to three years virtualisation will begin to exert a far greater influence on the desktop, as virtual machines become a fundamental part of organisations' IT strategies.

Virtualisation makes the delivery of applications safer and easier, and with this in mind more and more developers are distributing software in the form of virtual appliances - pre-installed applications and OS environments within virtual machines.

This approach combines the simple deployment of software with the benefits of a pre-configured device to eliminate OS and configuration issues.

With virtual appliances, software effectively becomes a self-contained service that can run anywhere and benefits from the simple backup and restore functionality that is a feature of any virtual environment.

One of the greatest challenges to IT directors is to be able to react quickly to business changes and to provide IT solutions that are flexible.

Virtualisation allows greater levels of flexibility than ever before - backups of entire environments can now be stored as libraries of virtual machines and corporate environments can be deployed quickly almost anywhere.

It is this degree of flexibility that will make virtualisation a standard platform for building IT infrastructures going forward.