Virtualisation is one of the fastest growing trends in business computing and according to a recent report from analysts at IDC – one of the world’s premier sources of market intelligence for the IT industry – the technology’s momentum is still building. Companies are increasingly recognising the benefits to be gained by having a number of mutually independent virtual operating systems running on a single physical machine – rather than having a separate piece of hardware for each – and the balance sheet says it all.

In 2008 the number of physical servers shipped fell by 25%, but the proportion of machines with a virtualised platform grew by the same amount, leading IDC to predict that by the end of 2009, for the first time, there will be more virtual machines (VMs) than physical servers deployed throughout Europe alone. If these purchases continue, IDC forecasts a typical data-centre ratio of virtual to physical of 3:2 by 2013. Their conclusions are broadly mirrored by rival global IT analyst, Gartner, which anticipates that the 2009 revenue from virtualisation software worldwide will grow to $2.7bn – up more than 42% on the previous year – as market penetration hits 20%.

Clearly, virtualisation has come a long way from its early iterations, but for airport operators, many of its benefits have only recently begun to become fully apparent.

Going virtual

Part of the reason for this lies in the widespread current pressure for the airport operator to reduce costs and improve operational efficiency. For applications that are intended to be used on a small to medium-scale, virtualisation is one of the most effective ways of streamlining a range of traditionally time-hungry tasks, while simultaneously minimising the demand for IT resources and infrastructure to achieve them.

"Virtualisation is one of the fastest growing trends in business computing."

Virtualisation comes in many forms. One of the most common ways it is used is with IT storage – where it allows a programme to run in virtual storage. This allows resources to be turned on and off as they are required, which can lead to massive cost savings, especially when it comes to power.

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Essentially, virtualisation software can simulate real environments – from the desktop to the server, adding a new level of flexibility to IT operations.

Virtual technologies were first formally recognised in 1965 by Gordon Moore in his eponymous ‘law’ (Moore’s Law states that raw computing power grows exponentially). With data density doubling every 18 months or so, modern servers are typically left running significantly under capacity; virtualisation simply offers a mechanism to take up the slack and utilise some of the spare capability that normally lies untapped. In effect, VMs make computing resources work harder.

Reducing the carbon footprint

The allure of virtualisation, however, goes beyond just getting more done with less. Running fewer machines means a lower power demand and with energy costs rising and traditional server farm / data centre power consumption burgeoning, in a business environment focussed on carbon footprints, this makes the VM route look particularly appealing.

According to an informal model designed by the international IT consultancy Atos Origin, upping server CPU (central processing unit – the part of the computer that gives instructions to a computer’s memory) uses 15% to 60% can carve nearly 90% off energy costs – even when price hikes are factored in. To put this in the wider context, figures released by the American Council for Energy-Efficient Economy suggest that IT equipment accounts for around 6% of total US electricity usage – and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that a quarter of this is down to data centres.

The potential carbon savings that virtualisation could make achievable are correspondingly impressive. The EPA estimates that simply continuing the current uptake rate of server consolidation could slash US carbon emissions by 15 million tons by 2011, while the Atos Origin model suggests that migrating server function in a conventional data centre of 3,000 machines could avoid more than 4,800t of CO2 annually. In sustainability terms, the stakes are high.

The benefits of virtualisation

Virtualisation offers a number of other potential benefits. It can, for instance, provide companies requiring specialist or bespoke software with a unique opportunity for future-proofing applications and operations, as well as keeping old data accessible for ongoing use. Running software on a properly configured VM ensures that old applications can be accommodated, even if they require a correspondingly old operating system, ensuring compatibility even through multiple hardware upgrades.

"For airport operators, virtualisation’s benefits have only recently begun to become fully apparent."

By the same token, it becomes possible to resurrect data that had previously been lost to the onward march of time and development. Long-dead information can once again be viewed by creating a virtual environment to replicate the technology that was current when it was first stored – and today’s VM will run better than the original ever did, even when brand new and back in its heyday.

Moreover, should such a virtual machine eventually become incompatible with later generations of hardware, the possibility always remains to run it within a ‘new’ virtual machine itself.

Achieving high server density is one of the key characteristics of virtualisation, which in practice means that there are considerable savings to be made both in terms of space and capital expenditure. Thus, consolidating a number of conventional servers reduces hardware purchase costs, while maximising the physical resources within a minimised physical footprint offers significant cost-savings on their subsequent maintenance – as well as freeing up valuable floor-space.

Virtualisation can also provide a welcome measure of security, although it would appear that the potential for ‘self healing’ in VMs, which has been trumpeted in some parts of the industry, still has yet to make serious inroads into the commercial sphere. However, physical security is certainly one area in which virtualisation scores, since the inherent ease with which VMs can be copied makes them immune to the sort of real-world threats to which conventional machines are vulnerable, such as fire, flood or loss – always assuming the relevant copy has been made, of course.

For stakeholders in the airport industry, as the following case study shows, all of this means that opting to go virtual can deliver some very real benefits.

Newcastle Airport changes for the better

In 2008, Newcastle International Airport handled more than five million passengers, nearly two million tons of freight and around 11,000t of mail – making it the UK’s 13th-busiest airport that year.

Having undergone considerable growth, the airport had a range of disparate IT technologies in operation across different business sectors, making unified performance analysis particularly difficult and time consuming. With information held in separate systems – each requiring manual interrogation – the ability to make business-critical decisions swiftly, was becoming compromised.

Having already established a culture of readily embracing novel IT developments to improve efficiency, the airport looked to virtualisation to provide a solution to its need for a robust approach to data storage and management. The package that Waterstons (a Durham-based consulting company renowned for its technology-led solutions) devised centred on DataCore SANmelody software. SANmelody converts standard Intel / AMD servers, blades or virtual machines into full-capability storage servers which virtualise discs, making them available to application servers over the existing network infrastructure. Two physical machines were installed, in-built synchronous replication over an internet small computer system interface (iSCSI) network ensuring that each is a perfect ‘block level’ copy of the other.

"Companies are increasingly recognising the benefits to be gained by having a number of mutually independent virtual operating systems."

The resulting system is powerful, but simple to manage, and overcomes the high cost and complexity associated with conventional storage area network (SAN) technology.

The project has brought a number of significant benefits to the airport’s operation. In terms of business efficiency, the new IT installation provides real-time performance data which enables swift decision-making to take place in response to currently prevailing market conditions. Additionally, maintenance and operational costs have been reduced, while the disaster recovery processes have benefitted from a major improvement.

Energy use has also seen a notable reduction and with Newcastle International having recently implemented a comprehensive climate change policy, these savings have made a particularly important early contribution to the airport’s efforts to reduce its carbon footprint.

Airports’ virtual future

How the future of virtualisation will play out remains to be seen. The added robustness and security that ‘self healing’ could deliver is one obvious area for development, while some commentators in the industry are tipping the market for hosted virtual desktops as the sector’s next big growth area. The virtualisation software landscape may also be set for change, with analysts at Gartner expecting Microsoft to challenge the current market supremacy of VMware in the coming years, particularly for SME-level businesses.

Whatever direction the technology does ultimately take, it is hard to envisage it ceasing to be relevant to the airport industry as the pressure grows for efficiency and profitability, and initiatives to cut carbon emissions ramp up. The potential benefits are just too great.