Sporadically delivered thoughts on Continuous Delivery

How to Waste Money on Virtualization

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I’ve been disappointed to see otherwise switched-on technical groups, and even high-priced ‘managed hosting’ companies, fail to take advantage of virtualization, even as they spend (and charge) loads of money to migrate physical servers onto virtualized infrastructures such as VMWare.

Moving from an OS running directly on hardware to an OS running on software that pretends to be hardware opens amazing possibilities, akin to the shift from paper to online data management. You’re replacing immutable, physical servers with data, which means you can treat your infrastructure the same way you treat any other data - you can automate it, copy it, transfer it, and basically put it at the mercy of anything you can script.

While it’s disappointing to see people use virtualization to replicate the experience of hosting on immutable, physical hardware, it’s truly appalling to see hosting vendors offer this as a service, and add a premium price on top. It’s only more annoying when they call it ‘Cloud’.

I’ve recently seen a tender response from a big name, international hosting provider which basically offers to provide you with a couple of dedicated hardware boxes with ESX installed on them. Reasonable, if not ideal; obviously it’s more powerful to have access to a pool of hardware resources that you share with other customers, so you can flex capacity when you need to, but there are reasons why a customer might not want to go this way.

What blew my mind was the way virtual machines on these boxes would be provided. For each VM, you pay a setup fee, and a monthly management fee. These fees are in pretty much the same ballpark as what you would pay for dedicated hardware for each of these VM’s. But this company also charges a very hefty fee for each physical ESX box, so you’re actually paying quite a bit more for N virtual machines than you would pay for N physical servers.

On top of this, you lose the flexibility that virtualization allows. Need to spin up a new image to prototype some changes to your application configuration? Request a price, get an invoice, raise a PO, pay a setup fee, and commit to three months of paying for the new image. Need to clone a running image to debug a production bug? Similar story. Expand capacity for a few weeks to support a marketing campaign? Implement an upgrade strategy that involves cloning, upgrading, testing, then swapping the clone into production? Even after you’ve jumped through the budgeting and purchasing hoops, you’ll need to send your ‘managed’ hosting vendor a change request and wait a few days for their engineers to use the virtualization management console for you to carry out each step.

I’m not a Capability Maturity Model kind of guy, but I could see the benefit of having one for virtualization, to help enterprise CIO types understand what they should be demanding from vendors. The lowest level would involve using virtualization to replicate physical hardware, and the next would introduce flexibility in managing instances, supporting the types of use cases I described above. Higher levels of maturity would be more cloud-like, particularly around self service in provisioning images, flexible capacity management, and dynamic provisioning. I see higher levels of capability moving away from Infrastructure as a Service and towards providing a development and deployment platform that abstracts the details of servers, i.e. Platform as a Service.

A virtualization CMM would be grossly abused by marketers, but something like it might provide a few clues, and stomp out the practice of hosting providers offering virtualization without the benefits.