Network Computing is part of the Informa Tech Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them. Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.

SMBs And The Psychology Of Virtualization

Forrester's survey of 2,600 European and U.S. IT decision-makers for small and medium-sized businesses (SMB) reveals that 53 percent of SMBs have or are implementing x86 server virtualization, 36 percent have virtualized instances of operating systems (OSs) and 61 percent expect to virtualize OS instances within the next two years. It seems that SMBs are jumping on the bandwagon, but is there more to SMB psychology that makes an SMB opt in or out of virtualizing?

Case in point: one east coast SMB chose to move to a distributed computing architecture with more servers compared with other choices which could have let it retain its mainframe-class server and virtualize. Why? "We had a suite of mission-critical applications that we had developed in-house and that we wanted to replace with packaged software so we could reduce our in-house maintenance responsibilities for the software," said the IT director, "So we developed an RFP that listed all of the business requirements of the organization from end users and IT. A combination end user and IT committee then evaluated solutions and found a vendor with a turnkey software package that ran on distributed Wintel servers, and that met our business needs."

For this particular SMB, a turnkey, distributed computing solution relieved their headaches. Gone were the days of trying to figure out the business logic of legacy code that no one in IT understood anymore. The new solution also  promised relief from internal change management control because under the new contract, an application would be enhanced with customized software routines to fit the business's needs. All of the software development, testing and deployment would be performed by the vendor. Of course, challenges remained, such as ensuring that custom interfaces for  legacy applications to outside systems still worked with the new software and developing a monitoring scheme and SLAs for the vendor to ensure that software enhancements were properly documented, logged and applied—and that they worked. Nevertheless, this organization felt all of that was a small price to pay for the benefits it was receiving, and it wasn't at all daunting to think that it might have to add physical servers to its distributed network to keep up with processing needs.

This isn't an unusual approach for SMBs, because there's plenty to be wary about with virtualization if you're a small IT department with limited resources. In some cases (as in the above example), the vendor you select for your mission-critical applications might not support a virtualized model of software implementation. In other cases, virtualization creates new IT assets that you need to monitor and that can quickly get out of control if you have limited staff time for system administration. This is corroborated by a May 2009 Interop survey of 120 network engineers, IT managers and executives. The survey found that 55 percent of respondents had more problems than benefits with virtualization, and 45 percent said they were getting the benefits of virtualization.

All of this leads to an important "bottom line" in SMB IT decision-making: the influence of the vendor. Not long ago, Gartner developed what it termed a "Vendor Influence Curve", 2nd slide, that was designed to help companies assess how much they let their networking vendors influence their purchasing decisions. The Gartner Vendor Influence Curve contained five categories:

  1. Networking is a commodity--vendors look to the supplier
  2. I consider a number of tactical vendors when building a best of breed network
  3. My network is strategic and I choose a strategic vendor to best meet my requirements
  4. I have a primary vendor partner and consider my partner as a primary influencer for my network
  5. My vendor is my only trusted advisor and I never look at other alternatives.

gartner-influence-curve.pngGartner stated that its research revealed that most companies fell between the #4 and #5 categories. And although the Gartner survey was targeted to networking, there is no reason to believe that SMBs don't make similar decisions in areas like mission-critical applications. After all, their staffs are lean and their expertise is limited. Outside consultants are hard to afford, so vendor consulting is the next best thing, even when it leads away from industry trends like virtualization. "What made sense to us was that we were going to have an integrated system solution and not a collection of "stovepipe" applications that didn't talk to each other," said the east coast SMB executive. "We have to train a few of our people in the new applications, and we are working with our vendor to ensure that the custom development we want gets done. But in the end, it's not a big deal to add servers."