Virtualization, lately the "it" thing in information technology, comes in many forms and flavors. It's really best thought of as shorthand...

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Virtualization, lately the “it” thing in information technology, comes in many forms and flavors. It’s really best thought of as shorthand for separating hardware and software and thereby achieving all kinds of goodness.

Traditionally, software runs on a particular piece of hardware. Your operating system and applications are installed on your computer. A shared-enterprise application is installed on a server computer. It’s a one-to-one relationship that has its benefits but offers little flexibility and can be inefficient.

Virtualization promises to address those issues and many more by allowing IT managers to make changes in one part of a computer system without dramatically affecting other components.

There are few IT headaches that virtualization can’t help address, at least according to the vendors. That’s part of why Microsoft outlined its broad plans for the technology late last month, and why market-leader VMware was among the hottest new tech stocks last year.

For most people, however, virtualization will remain an esoteric IT thing that happens in a part of their organization they rarely visit. And if the technology is employed properly, it should be undetectable to most end-users, unless they’re noticing convenient capabilities they didn’t have before or better service from their IT department.

To get a sense of how organizations are using virtualization to solve various real-world business problems, we talked with IT managers at three local enterprises who are putting it to use today for three different purposes.

Port of Seattle

In the data center at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, space was getting tight and things were getting hot.

Enterprise applications run on servers, and the Port of Seattle’s software vendors each wanted at least one dedicated server for their application — a fairly common setup, but one that leaves the majority of each server’s capacity unused. With close to 100 applications running, the servers were taking over.

“We had this massive server sprawl going on in our data center,” said Matt Breed, the Port’s senior manager of IT infrastructure services. “It just was not sustainable.”

All of those servers require lots of power to run and — because they generate heat — to cool. They also take up space, which was becoming a scarce commodity.

Using VMware’s ESX Server, the Port has consolidated the majority of the physical servers that run its applications — things like e-mail routing, Web sites and records management — on “virtual machines.” As many as 32 virtual machines now run on each physical server.

Breed said that saved the Port $600,000 in hardware costs last year. Virtualizing the data center has dramatically reduced power consumption and thermal output. Likewise, the servers take up much less space. And the hardware savings have more than offset the cost of the virtualization software, Breed added.

This kind of consolidation means putting more eggs in each basket, Breed noted, but because each virtual machine behaves more like software, it can be easily moved from one server to another in the event of a hardware crash. The system can even be programmed to do this “fail-over” automatically, helpful in the event of a disaster.

The Port has also purchased higher-end physical machines with backup power supplies and other safeguards to replace the servers it has retired through virtualization.

Server virtualization in data centers is among the most common uses of the technology right now. Microsoft plans to offer its technology for server virtualization, called Hyper-V, as part of its Windows Server 2008 software, due at the end of this month. The Hyper-V piece, however, is not expected until late summer.

Swedish Medical Center

When Swedish Medical Center started exploring virtualization three years ago, it wanted to give its doctors, nurses and other health-care professionals anywhere, anytime access to their applications and data.

It also sought to eliminate the “brutal process” of swapping out desktop computers, which could take up to eight hours as technicians removed applications and data from an old machine and transferred them to a new one, said Mike Criss, manager of infrastructure engineering.

Further complicating things, Swedish had planned to move its PCs to Windows XP from a hodgepodge of earlier versions of the operating system as far back as Windows 95. With lots of critical legacy applications running in different departments and old operating systems, compatibility was a huge potential problem.

So Swedish used an application-virtualization technology called Softgrid — which Microsoft got through the acquisition of Softricity in 2006 — to ease the transition.

“If we could make it work in Softgrid on XP, then we’re done, since it’s virtualized and it’s protected from the other applications,” Criss said.

Through Softgrid, the applications run centrally on servers and are deployed to PCs when a particular user logs in to a particular machine. Swedish is running about 700 applications this way now.

“So, Dr. A goes to our Cherry Hill campus or goes to the Issaquah emergency department and back to First Hill, he’s going to have the same experience in any three of those locations — same applications, same files,” Criss said.

That has helped make the desktop more of a commodity, he said. Now, when it’s time to change over a machine, the process is much simpler and takes about half an hour.

“We’ve achieved a lot of benefits by moving down this path,” Criss said.

Swedish is also using VMware to consolidate its servers in the same way the Port does.

That has been helpful for running the hospital’s regular end-of-month reports. The staff produces the reports only once a month, but it takes a lot of capacity to crunch data on procedures, patient visits and other hospital statistics.

“In the past, when they were on physical servers … the reports would take days to come out,” Criss said. Now, using virtualization, the IT department can quickly bring up extra servers and let them run simultaneously to crank out the report in eight hours. Bringing extra physical servers on line once a month for this task would not be worth the effort.

“It’s nice to have that flexible capacity on demand,” he said.

Kent School District

The Kent School District is rolling out a program to give all of the students in its secondary schools their own laptop or Tablet PC to use in the classroom and at home. About 300 kids at the district’s Mill Creek Middle School were issued computers earlier this month.

It’s an ambitious effort that will require the district’s IT department — already handling twice as many computers as eight years ago with the same amount of staff — to become even more efficient.

When a computer becomes a student’s primary means of studying and doing homework, the stakes are higher, said Thuan Nguyen, the district’s director of IT.

“Now, it’s like a pencil,” he said. “If that machine is broken for any reason, they are no longer learning.”

The district started looking into application virtualization about a year ago. Now, using Softgrid, it’s running a system that allows a set of applications to be attached to a specific user account. The applications themselves run on centralized servers and are sent out to individual users when they log in.

“They can log in to any computer in the district and that set of applications will appear for them, regardless of where they are and regardless of which computer they’re using,” Nguyen said.

It also makes provisioning and maintaining the software on all of those new student laptops quicker and easier.

And if a student’s laptop breaks, “we need to be able to give them another machine that looks exactly the same. Virtualization allows us to do that,” Nguyen said.

No one should get the impression that virtualization is all upside, he said. Breed, at the Port, and Criss, at Swedish, echoed those sentiments, noting that it requires careful training and planning.

For the Kent School District, discovering which applications can and can’t be virtualized was time-consuming. And while it has helped the IT department be more efficient, there are also additional costs. A staff position is dedicated to maintaining the virtualization software and the district had to get servers up and running to house the applications.

“There’s a lot of perks, a lot of pros, and it sounds really good,” Nguyen said. But, “when people talk about it, they make it sound way easier than it really is. It was a tough road to get us to where we are today.”

Benjamin J. Romano: 206-464-2149 or