Virtualization has been with us since the mainframe days, when a single system could be sliced into separate virtual machines, each allowed to run their own instances of applications, or even different operating systems.
But when one looks at how virtualization is being deployed today, are businesses really getting the bang for the buck that the technology promised? Probably not, but it is not their fault. The typical issue that companies face is that in virtualizing their servers, they address only two of the three major subsystems (compute and storage), leaving I/O mired back in the past.
The push for virtualization in x86 servers came about because of cost, management, floor space and power concerns. By implementing virtualization, a business can reduce its acquisition and operation costs. The business can also increase its velocity in order to take advantage of trends more adeptly.
With virtualization, one partitions a single server, carving compute (CPU and memory) into separate virtual machines. This allows multiple virtual servers to share the same physical host with tools like VMware or Microsoft’s Hyper-V. Storage has been virtualized for years via external shared storage on Storage Area Networks (SANs) or Network Attached Storage (NAS.)
But that final frontier, the I/O, remains tied to the physical server chassis. Worst of all, I/O tends to be the virtualization bottleneck. And it is the biggest cause of management headaches as administrators spend too much time provisioning, deploying, and managing the I/O resources.
Addressing the compute and storage of a server but ignoring the I/O is like putting a new engine in a car and then trying to race it with old, balding tires. A server needs balance in its subsystems to keep bottlenecks from occurring .
I/O virtualization is less common in the market, but it is rapidly proving to be an important element as more companies are finding that I/O has become the bottleneck for their servers. I/O virtualization removes the standard I/O controllers (network and storage) and places them at the top of the rack in an intelligent appliance. This appliance allows all of the servers to share and pool their devices. When businesses move the I/O to the top of the rack and use the I/O to tie their servers to the end of row switching, they can get rid of expensive Ethernet and Fibre Channel switches.
By virtualizing the I/O in a top-rack pool, administrators can quickly provision and deploy resources to servers from a remote console without ever having to touch the rack. Businesses are no longer held back; they can take advantage of changes in the market rapidly, using new products and services faster than ever before as IT becomes a catalyst for change instead of a roadblock of it.
Utilizing I/O virtualization has another huge benefit for businesses: smaller servers. But not less powerful servers, just smaller servers. Without having to host all of those I/O devices inside each server, a company can use smaller form factor servers. We find that most customers who used the NextIO vNET I/O Maestro also used 2U and 4U servers in the past and now deploy with 1U servers. Smaller servers consume less energy than their larger counterparts and require less AC cooling. Because they consume less space in the rack, they also help businesses consolidate their IT infrastructure. Best of all, smaller servers are almost always lower in cost, allowing a company to either reign in their acquisition costs or buy more compute power for the same amount of budget.
Through I/O virtualization, a single cable (or pair of cables if running redundant connections) will be all that is needed to communicate between the server and the I/O virtualization appliance at the top of the rack. By reducing the cabling (up to 80% in some cases), a company can reduce the cost, complexity, and management of all of those cables. And with fewer cables behind the servers, there is better airflow, which will also lower cooling costs.
Through I/O virtualization a company can bring a balanced solution to their virtualized data center that:
- Removes the bottlenecks typically associated with virtualization
- Reduces the cost to deploy and manage servers
- Gives the business better agility, allowing them to react more quickly to changes in the business environment
- Minimizes cabling, allowing for lower cost, better airflow and easier provisioning – all without having to touch the rack
Clearly, with compute and storage virtualization rolling out across production servers, businesses should be looking to I/O virtualization to provide the final missing piece of a more efficient data center.