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Inevitable uncertainty: avoiding the pitfalls of virtualising business apps

By Kevin Watson, Workspace Solutions Architect, Getronics.

 

Date: 12 Dec 2011

Over the past few years, many businesses have seen the dramatic benefits of virtualising servers. As a result, data centre, and other IT, professionals are being tasked with achieving the same success by virtualising business applications.

Among other benefits, migrating applications from discrete local servers to virtualised data centre shared service infrastructure can significantly reduce energy requirements. With power (and people) the biggest spend when it comes to managing data centres, virtualising applications is an obvious way to achieve cost efficiencies. Also, if workspaces or desktop services are also virtualised, then not only are local energy requirements further reduced, the choice in applications and accessibility to these are substantially increased. The benefits and drivers of virtualisation are clear; however the migration process unfortunately is not.

Assessment of which apps to migrate to a virtual platform, and the migration process itself, are complex processes. When conducting an initial discovery exercise it’s not uncommon for us to identify 10,000 applications within a business. When we ask, “How many of these do you still require?” more often than not the answer is simply, “I don’t know.” With businesses commonly deploying new applications as and when needed, and then forgetting about the old ones, combined with employees downloading free apps to their work PC, which they then use for work purposes, the migration process quickly becomes much more intricate and complex than first thought.

In effect the project can become a spring clean, where legacy apps go through an assessment process to deem not only whether they are suited for a virtual environment, but whether the business needs them at all. Although the process may be challenging, when you consider the costs of supporting legacy apps – with business discovering they’re often paying to support unrecognised and undetected applications that may not be needed at all - and combine this with the benefits of virtualising business apps, the pros certainly outweigh the cons.

However, before any data centre or application hosting professional leaps in to such a project, there are some key matters to address to ensure success.


1) Budgeting and planning – review and revise with management

One of the most common pitfalls of any application virtualisation project is poor planning. Given how relatively straightforward server virtualisation can be, many IT decision makers use this as a template when it comes to the timing and budgets for virtualising apps. The process for the latter, however, is far more complex than for the former, and poor planning can easily lead to the project running over budget and behind schedule – that is, of course, according to incorrect initial timing and budget projections.

One business application can take can take anywhere from a few days to several months to migrate to a virtual platform. And with businesses now supporting apps in their thousands, and many of these being legacy apps that the business neither is aware of nor manages (as per employee-downloaded applications), the project can easily become a bigger task than first estimated.

Ensuring the CIO or IT decision maker is working closely with the data centre or application hosting professional in charge of the migration process, will also ensure sufficient headroom has been built into the timeline. This should accommodate for the inevitable uncertainties that the majority of businesses discover when embarking on such a project.

2) Conduct a current state assessment

Whilst reviewing the timeline for the project, data centre professionals will need to conduct an audit, or current state assessment, of all the business applications This will uncover how many applications a business has running and will allow for appropriate planning to be made for the finalisation of timelines and budgets.

One of the biggest surprises for businesses during this process is the sheer volume of legacy apps the business supports. Being able to effectively rule out those apps you do and don’t need will significantly impact on the migration process. When you consider the resource required for app identification and management of the migration process, each application can cost up to £2,000 to move to a new environment. Knowing if a certain application is needed by the business - with the answer often being no - can therefore result in significant cost savings.

3) Rationalisation: to virtualise or not to virtualise

Following a complete audit, data centre professionals will have a clear view of the sheer volume of applications that need to be assessed.

It’s natural at this stage to feel overwhelmed, but there are some simple ways to manage this process to ensure applications are reviewed and rationalised in a straightforward manner. We estimate that 80 per cent of applications are suitable for virtualisation, and a further 10% could be virtualised but with possible reduction in user experience of the application, we recommend further testing of these applications prior to deciding on the best approach.


The key criteria to use when assessing whether an application is needed and whether it should be virtualised, is as follows:

o How many installs does a particular application have?
If it’s a high number this indicates it’s heavily relied upon and is a prime candidate for migration.

o When was the last time the application was used?
If it’s been more than 6 months, locate the application owner and find out if it’s necessary. Perhaps the application has been replaced but the owner would still like the data. If this is the case, it’s a straightforward process of storing the data but not the application - saving money at the same time.

o Is the application unmanaged or managed?
It’s not uncommon for free apps to be downloaded by employees. However, these can easily result in unforeseen headaches for the migration project. The app may have been free to download, but storing and managing the data on a server within the data centre is not. Would the business want to pay thousands of pounds for the migration or would it rather the employee used an approved application. Employee downloaded applications still need to be accounted for in a migration project, even if the end result is extracting the data and moving this across to an authorised business application.

o How is the application accessed?
Do users need to be able to access the application offline? Or can it be accessed centrally without a negative impact on productivity levels? This is a key step in the rationalisation process. An application may hold the same levels of availability and performance when virtualised, but if it’s used by, for instance, field engineers of an insurance company, they may need to run the app offline, which means virtualisation may not be suitable. On the other hand, if the application is used by helpdesk workers, for example, who are based in the office, then virtualisation should be considered.

o What are the security or regulatory requirements for each application you’re considering virtualising?
This will obviously change from business to business, but we’ve found many businesses cite enhanced security as a driver for virtualisation. Looking at finance as an example, we see many benefits from having the application and data stored within the data centre. Additionally, through a service such as Getronics’ Workspace Online, for example, employees can access their desktop applications through dumb devices with the data stored centrally in a secure environment.

Some businesses may also be required to hold data for a number of years and therefore assume they need the related application. As described above it’s simple to extract the data for storage and then discard the application.

Migrating business applications to a virtual platform certainly offers a plethora of benefits, which many businesses now understand and are keen to realise. However, there are many pitfalls to avoid regarding the migration process, including the incorrect treatment of application virtualisation as equivalent to server virtualisation, and the consequential underestimation of the time it would take to assess and rationalise 10 years’ worth of accumulated apps. Nevertheless, following the above steps will help to determine the migration strategy for a business and ensure the project remains on track.


 

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