Federal IT Reform: It’s All About Virtualization

Federal agencies charged with improving the efficiency of information technology operations are embracing data consolidation, the cloud and mobile devices. One of the major factors involved in these efforts is the use of virtualization technologies that enhance the productivity of computer operating systems.

Federal agencies are now under the gun to drastically reduce the number or government data centers from 2,800 to about 1,800 by 2015. Steven VanRoekel, the federal chief information officer, has set a target of shuttering 472 centers by the end of 2012. In addition, agencies have been charged with implementing a “cloud first” policy for IT expansions or upgrades. The net effect will be a major rationalization of hardware resources, especially in reducing server operations. That, in turn, will require major investments in virtualization techniques.

“If agencies are thinking vigorously and broadly about combining server consolidation, data center consolidation and private clouds, the industry can realize tremendous leaps in scalability, cost savings, improved services and integrated management. In many ways, this begins with a smart approach to virtualization,” said Susie Adams, Microsoft’s federal chief technology officer.

Standard computer hardware generally leaves machines running far below their inherent potential. To tap into that underutilized capacity and run additional tasks, a new software layer is required between the hardware and the operating system logic. The layer “virtualizes” the hardware, increasing utilization and reducing expenses, including for power.

Virtualization Getting Attention

Most federal agencies have at least stuck their toe in the water in utilizing virtualization, according to a recent survey released through MeriTalk, an online IT community for federal agencies.

The MeriTalk survey, sponsored by Microsoft and NetApps, indicated that federal agencies were getting the message on using virtualization. Nearly 82 percent of the federal IT professionals surveyed said their agencies had already implemented some type of server virtualization. The survey involved 302 IT professionals working for federal, state or local agencies, with half of the respondents in the federal sector.

While the survey did not specify how deeply federal agencies were embracing virtualization, it did note that federal and non-federal respondents combined expected “virtualized workloads” to almost double in the next four years — from 37 percent to 63 percent.

“There is excellent potential for growth in the federal space for virtualization,” Aileen Black, vice president, federal sector, at VMware, told CRM Buyer.

Other assessments differ in various degrees from the MeriTalk study but in general agree that federal agencies have seen the benefits of the technology and that a much higher level of adoption will occur over the next several years.

For example, in a Quest Software survey conducted last year, 41.3 percent of federal IT respondents indicated that their agencies had purchased virtualization resources and were in various stages of implementation. Federal agencies spent about US$800 million on virtualization in 2009 and are likely to boost that to $1.4 billion by 2014, according to study by Deltek, a market consultant that closely follows federal IT investments.

“My recent conversations with government contacts and contractors concur with our 2009 surveys. We believe that storage and network virtualization are the next trend, and those two purposes also align more easily with data center consolidation efforts since they apply to the organization’s IT infrastructure,” Angie Petty, senior principal analyst at Deltek, told CRM Buyer.

“Additionally, I did a quick search through our database of active federal opportunities and found 46 opportunities that mention virtualization, 10 mention server virtualization, two refer to storage virtualization, one for desktop, none for networks,” she said.

Savings Attractive

The economics of virtualization are especially appealing to federal agencies, according to the MeriTalk survey. Federal respondents said they expected that IT budget savings resulting from the use of virtualization would increase from about 19 percent to 30 percent by 2015.

The deployment of virtualization, in general, can result in savings of 20 percent and possibly much more in computing and related expenses, Gartner has estimated.

“The potential capital and power savings can be impressive,” Tom Bittman, vice president and industry analyst at Gartner, told CRM Buyer.

Despite the attractiveness of virtualization from a cost standpoint, the interest of federal agencies in the technology, and the plans for doubling virtualized workloads, challenges to implementing the technology remain. While confident of a significant return on investment, many respondents were concerned about having enough funds for upfront investments in the technology.

Only 48 percent of federal IT respondents believed that they had the funding needed to meet their server virtualization goals, MeriTalk reported.

Respondents were also worried about successfully adapting virtualization to legacy systems, and 41 percent of federal survey participants said that security also presented a challenge. While IT operations personnel endorsed virtualization, IT management was less enthusiastic. Only 63 percent of federal respondents said their management fully supported server virtualization adoption. Fewer than half reported that their agency had a formal policy or common framework for server virtualization.

“Some federal management people may have worries about virtualization because of the shared tenancy OS logic aspect versus the physical separation security concerns,” Microsoft’s Adams said.

In a similar vein, the Quest study showed that nearly 65 percent of federal respondents indicated that there was either a lot of confusion or a moderate level of confusion within their organization about the distinction between cloud computing and virtualization.

Still, with the federal government’s top IT official continuing to push significant reforms in IT management, virtualization is fast becoming a requirement, rather than an option.

“Everywhere you see data consolidation there is virtualization behind it,” VanRoekel told CRM Buyer. “We are going to see massive savings over the next several years. Virtualization is a key component of everything we’re doing.”

John K. Higgins is a career business writer, with broad experience for a major publisher in a wide range of topics including energy, finance, environment and government policy. In his current freelance role, he reports mainly on government information technology issues for ECT News Network.

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