How to Operate a Virtualized Culture: Organizational Obstacles

While the business benefits of upgrading to a virtualized environment are substantial, it requires more than just a green light from the C-suite to successfully implement the delivery of applications through a shared infrastructure approach.

Early adopters have already seen positive results from implementing virtualization in their data centers. However, while the business benefits of upgrading to a virtualized environment are substantial, it requires more than just a green light from the C-suite to successfully implement the delivery of applications through a shared infrastructure approach.

Hidden behind the flashy return on investment figures and tales of better business and IT alignment, is an array of cultural issues that result from the transformative effect of virtualization on the data center.

The sharing of IT resources that virtualization enables within the data center requires that the lines of business (or departments or application teams) learn to share as well. This can mean, for example, that departments are forced to share machines that they previously had single ownership of.

This is a significant shift in the standard work paradigm that IT staff is accustomed to and raises questions that need to be addressed, like: Who will have control? What new skills will be required? Will my IT department need to downsize? Organizations need to anticipate the obstacles associated with this change in order to develop a strategic approach that puts as much emphasis on people and processes as it does on the technology.

Avoiding Virtual Sprawl

Absent preemptive direction and standardized processes, the movement toward a streamlined IT infrastructure can result in a sprawl of virtual servers, confusion over roles and responsibilities and resistance from internal client groups: sure to irk even the most patient of your IT staff.

Based HP’s experiences in helping thousands of customers virtualize their infrastructures and HP’s own IT transformation, following are some tips on how to ensure a smooth transition to a virtualized environment.

Begin by taking a look at your IT infrastructure as a whole. Are there lines of business, departments or application teams that solely control their dedicated infrastructure? If so, anticipate that these business managers, and the IT staff that supports them, will be skeptical of the shared infrastructure or fear that their business applications may be disrupted.

This requirement for sharing may come at a level unanticipated by the current organization structure. This will require executive IT support in creating a forum to appropriately plan and budget. This forum is crucial for success beyond just tactical virtualization efforts measured by business results.

With the right organizational support, IT can create a meaningful strategy that’s easier to build support for within the ranks. Engaging appropriate teams early in the decision process is also key to overcoming skepticism. The more involved an individual feels, the easier they adapt to change. It will also help ensure that the proposed move to a virtualized environment will meet their needs and enable them to continue delivering business results.

Early engagement can also take the form of a test period to ensure skeptics will entrust business-critical applications to operate properly in this new virtual environment. By inviting the pragmatists to monitor how the technology works and accept that the automation will perform correctly, they become active members in the decision making process. Customers have reported that with this testing period, the movement toward virtualization is more readily adopted.

Fair Isaac, a provider of business analytics software and decision technology, tested their migration to a virtualized environment by transferring the contents of older development servers to a new HP Bladesystem environment. The pilot was very successful with minimal interruption internally and no interruption to external customers, building confidence within the team to move forward with the full deployment.

However, anticipate that even when the technology is tested sufficiently to be deemed trustworthy, established metrics may get in the way. Some companies, for example, measure labor productivity in terms of the number of servers managed by each system administrator. Moving to a virtualized world reduces the number of physical servers that must be managed by each administrator. So using the old metrics, administrators presiding over a virtualized infrastructure would appear, erroneously, to be less productive.

Recognizing Untapped Potential

In this situation, it’s important to reassess the metrics by which you measure productivity. Under this new work paradigm, where less time is needed for administrator tasks, it’s a prime opportunity to reconsider how your IT department is aligned to support business goals. While your first thought might be to downsize your IT department, instead, consider utilizing their untapped capacity.

If the mission of the IT department is to help drive the business, virtualization is great way to reduce costs and staffing requirements needed to “keep the lights on” so that those resources can be diverted to more strategic projects that actively help meet the organization’s business objectives.

Your IT workforce may have other strengths that currently are not being recognized and their skills could be used elsewhere within your organization. For example, members of your IT staff could be talented developers. Paired with the increased agility of the new virtualized environment, they could work to reduce the downtime of testing (a natural side-effect of a newly virtualized system) and speed time to market, generating new revenue streams and accelerating business growth.

All of these decisions and changes, however, will need to stem from one unified team with a well-developed standardized process for new requests: whether it is for new hardware or new software applications. This centralized team should be prepared to assess each situation or request and decide whether the new application requires a new server or if the capacity needed can already be handled by an existing underutilized server.

In the new age of virtualization, the underutilization of servers will become a thing of the past and excess server capacity can be flexed to automatically meet fluctuating business demand.

Anticipating the right cultural issues and ensuring a smooth transition can result in tremendous success. University of Utah Health Care, for example, introduced virtualization to alleviate stress put on its data center responsible for powering the IT for more than 900,000 outpatient visits and 23,000 inpatient admissions a year. With rapid growth and cutting-edge programs in its data center, which housed more than 350 servers, IT had run out of space, power and cooling capacity. At the same time, the university was challenged to maintain IT alignment with its growth and medical goals.

Using virtualization solutions from HP and its partners, the university achieved a 15:1 consolidation ratio, consolidating 150 physical servers onto 10 HP ProLiant BladeSystem servers, delivering 346% ROI over three years. (The complete University of Utah Health Care case study is available here.)

HP’s own internal success with virtualization has created a shift in the way we think about virtualization too. We now ask business teams to justify why they should be in a shared services environment, HP is asking teams to justify why a shared virtualized environment will not work for their project.

If you’re considering virtualization and do not have the in-house resources to assess your current environment from an integrated people, processes and technology perspective, find a vendor that has qualified service professionals who can help fill in the gaps. An integrated approach will help ensure that in the transition to a virtualization environment, your organization gains all of the benefits while avoiding the pitfalls associated with the cultural issues that can hinder a smooth implementation.

Comments on "How to Operate a Virtualized Culture: Organizational Obstacles"


Virtual sprawl is certainly a major issue I’ve seen in working with web hosting/SaaS providers. One client had a half dozen virtual systems running MySQL. He was worried about security and decided to run on virtual system per database rather than use good security methods on a single database. Anytime MySQL had to be upgraded, they had to update a half dozen systems versus one. Prior to virtualization, they only had 1 MySQL server.

I work with many micro/small businesses and many have inquired about virtualization; however, most would benefit little from it due to the small size of their current infrastructure; however, some are influenced by the virtualization marketing pressure. I’ve advised a wait and see approach. When they need to consolidate, upgrade or otherwise migrate their existing infrastructure, we will evaluate virtualization at that time and establish some real metrics as to the benefits.

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