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Europeans go ga-ga over virtual servers

Watch out for that Virtualisation Whiplash

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Server virtualisation deployments are on the rise in Western Europe, and this comes as no surprise given the enormous pressure that IT managers are under to cut costs and drive up the utilization on the gear that they have in their data centres. The continuing maturity of hypervisors and hardware features to better use them, particularly on x64 machines, is helping boost deployments, too.

According to the box counters at IDC, the number of servers that shipped from vendors with server virtualisation hypervisors grew by 26.5 per cent in 2008 in Western Europe, hitting 358,000 units.

"The accelerated adoption on the x86 side of the server market is making virtualisation a crucial factor, changing the approach of suppliers and the deployment habits of customers throughout Europe," explained Giorgio Nebuloni, research analyst with IDC's European systems and infrastructure solutions unit, in a statement to accompany the release of a report detailing virtual and physical server deployments in Western Europe in 2007 and 2008, and forecasts going out to 2013.

Nebuloni said that in 2008 some 18.3 per cent of the 1.95 million servers that shipped in Western Europe were virtualised. IDC reckons that about 14.6 per cent of servers sold in the region in 2007 were virtualised, and projects that in 2010, the number of servers with virtualisation hypervisors will hit a 21 per cent penetration level across all architectures. "More importantly, last year, and for the first time ever, the number of virtual machine (VM) shipments exceeded the number of physical servers shipped, topping 2 million units," Nebuloni added.

Unix servers from IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Sun Microsystems, and Fujitsu have had various kinds of logical and virtual partitioning technologies from the late 1990s. The adoption rate of these technologies followed a similar adoption curve and, more significantly, put pressure on revenues and profits above and beyond the normal pressures driven by the constant march of Moore's Law.

Server consolidation enabled by virtualisation and sophisticated workload management have also done their compression magic on mainframe sales over the past two decades and on AS/400 midrange server sales in the past decade, too. One of the reasons why these Unix and proprietary platforms persist is because they can be run at fairly high utilization rates, at least compared to x86 and x64 servers, which have only within the past few years been equipped with virtualisation hypervisors that are robust and sophisticated enough to be deployed supporting real workloads and, equally importantly, are affordable enough to be widely used.

The lack of decent hypervisors for x86 and x64 servers has, ironically, helped prop up server shipments and revenues while decreasing sales for mainframes, AS/400s, and Unix boxes, making Windows and Linux look that much stronger when ranked by aggregate revenues. But the Virtualisation Whiplash will work its magic on Windows and Linux in due time.

The ramp of virtualisation is slow - the penetration of hypervisors on IBM's Power Systems boxes are somewhere between 50 and 95 per cent right now, depending on the size of the box - but will eventually become universal. The possible exceptions are high performance supercomputing clusters and tower servers used by SMBs to run their businesses. And I wouldn't rule these out of the Virtualisation Whiplash in the long run, either.

To help us all from going nuts when we talk about physical and virtual machines, IDC is introducing a new concept, called the logical machine, which is the set comprised of physical machines that do not have virtualization on them and the number of virtual machines added up on the physical machines that do have hypervisors.

For this year, IDC is projecting that the number of virtual servers shipped in Western Europe will be 10 per cent higher than for physical servers, and that by 2013, the number will be 50 per cent. (Making the ratio of virtual to physical servers three to two.) IDC says that the number of logical machines is expected to grow at a rate of 15.7 per cent through 2013.

What IDC did not say, of course, is what the average selling price of a physical, virtual, and logical machine would be over that 2007 through 2013 span. Even if physical server prices hold up over that time, or better still, if they grow as customers deploy richer server configurations to support hypervisors, even with the cost of virtualisation tools added to the box, it is quite possible that the price of the average logical server contracts sharply even as the number of physical servers sharply contracts. This happened to mainframes, it happened to AS/400s, and it happened to Unix boxes, and in all cases, the contraction whacked revenues and profits at the companies that made these boxes.

It is hard to imagine that x64 machines are somehow going to be magically immune to this Virtualisation Whiplash. For now, as companies convert from x86 and x64 boxes that don't have the features necessary to support virtualisation, business looks pretty good. But at some point, customers start interleaving workloads and running boxes efficiently, and they will simply not need as many boxes as they might have in the past and don't have to buy enough capacity to cover all the peaks of all their workloads.

It is hard to say when that day comes, but you can be fairly certain that such a day is indeed coming. ®

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