Virtualisation and the Verger
July 6th, 2009 by ravi

Focus your interest, if you can, on the IT manager. This once docile creature, who used to oversee the functioning of a server room or a machine room, has recently morphed, at least in jargon, to master and owner of (drumroll please), “The Enterprise Data Center“. From a 7-11 to a WalMart… lots more aisles, same old crap. And so he sat astride this beast, enjoying a newly minted cabinet-level position (CIO). An example of what came next in his evolutionary story, a veritable Cambrian explosion that should please the late Stephen Jay Gould, shall be described soon.

But first, I must clear something up: this new breed is no longer the ubergeek that you might have in mind, purveyor of magical solutions dredged up from the bowels of operating systems to cure any and all ailments of the voracious end user. This is a new man. And a new man needs a new language, and the English language, in case you have not been informed, is today taught in the School of Business Management — perhaps not taught, but more than that… researched — and this English is a language of rampant capitalisation and short span: TCO, ROI, KPI, and other 3 letter words that identify the IT stalwart as a man of heft and substance.

And so, armed with metrics and spreadsheets this new man went looking for a new problem, and sure enough he found one. Or rather, so as not to ruffle the Armani, McKinsey and Co obligingly found him one.

McKinsey, in case you are unaware of this line of profession, is one of a set of organisations that enables the outsourcing of thought. It is the Deepak Chopra to corporate angst. It is the homeopathy of business medicine. Say your car company (let us call it, hmm… so many choices… how about Ford) makes gas guzzling ill-designed cars that nobody wants to buy even if you offer to sell it to them for $2000 lesser than a competitor’s equivalent vehicle. In the days before McKinsey, you had no option but to examine your design and manufacturing processes, the performance of your top managers, your advertising and marketing… frankly the sort of tedious activities that are beneath a Harvard man like you. The advent of McKinsey was a moment of fairness in a lop-sided world lacking Live Aid concerts for Exective Vice Presidents. So you turned the issue over to McKinsey, and sure enough, within 3 weeks, the credentialed but unsung heroes within turned out a report identifying your problem: worker pay and retirement benefits. The brilliance of McKinsey’s solutions was the unerring serendipity of their prescriptions seen in light of your own innermost desires.

Sometimes, on very rare instances, when the cosmos is aligned just about right, reality takes a bite out of this entire scheme, as happened to a close sibling of McKinsey’s, by name Arthur Anderson / Anderson Consulting, also known as MBAs Sans Frontiers, whose name you might vaguely associate with that of a now black-holed hot gas giant, Enron. But one cannot build a model of the universe and go about life on the basis of singularities and exceptions.

And so, we return to McKinsey and our Windsor knotted spreadsheet chomping champion of computing.

“Listen”, says McKinsey to our erstwhile comrade, “you have a problem”.

Not one to be caught napping, our new leader responds: “I know that!”.

And then adds: “What is it? Is it domain squatting? Mitigating enterprise data mining synergy downtime? Not Intellectual Property infraction weaknesses. Please say it ain’t so”.

The McKinsey man is known not merely for finding a question to fit his answer, he is also endowed with the best of bedside manners, and with a warm pat on the shoulder he offers his alarmed client some specifics: “Do you recall our humanware optimisation strategy from last spring when we identified surplus functionality in IT services, transitioned users to a self-service model and achieved gains in payroll loss reduction?”.

“Do I remember”, grins our chap, “I thank you for it each time I climb into the XJ8 I bought from my bonus that year”.

“I think”, the McKinsey man’s manner turns brooding, “it is time to apply that same analysis to your hardware”.

“You mean?” stutters the leader.

6%“, bellows McKinsey Jr, shooting up from his chair, in righteous wrath. “6% is what I mean!” his voice trembles in outrage and incredulity.

The leader is still at loss, but feels the promise of next year’s bonus suffusing warmth through his limbs. “That doesn’t sound right!”, he responds in indignation.

“It’s sacrilege”, says the manager-whisperer, “and it is the current utilisation percentage of your enterprise data center“.

“That’s bad”, nods the new organisation man, “…. right?”.

“Terrible”, comes the assurance, “just terrible. Here you have all this spare CPU capacity going waste.” (he considers adding: “There are children in India who don’t have a single CPU cycle and you are wasting 94% of it each minute, each hour, each day” — but then decides against it. The McKinsey boys are known in the underworld for their soft touch).

“Should we run more apps”, offers our hero, “we can run more apps. We could convert the code base to C++ or Java and that’s like 4 times the CPU cycles. I could call the boys up at Microsoft — their new product Basic Limited Office Add-on Tools gets like the highest bars in all those performance benchmarks”.

“No, no”, McKinsey Jr is not satisfied, “we cannot always fall back on Microsoft to solve our problems, and we are moving away from C++ as a revenue generation source”.

Allowing for a pregnant pause to underscore the heft of his proposal, the hired brain leans forward.

Virtualisation“, he intones, assuming the voice of the Dalai Lama, whose teachings, it had turned out, were invaluable to the aspiring technology leader, and were made available for free with the purchase of a full set of Taylor Made clubs.

“What?”, the confusion was understandable, for the word “virtue” had not enjoyed any prominence in prior consultations, “Virtual liaison?”, the manager had always liked the word “liaison” and his hopes shot up.

“No, no”, muttered the peeved boy genius. “Virtual-i-sation. What we do is we separate the OS from the hardware… introduce an abstraction layer between them.”

“Ah, and that fixes the CPU under-utilisation”.

“Well yes, but…”, the man from McKinsey was a decent sort and one did not just blurt it out like that, “what you really gain is the power of virtualisation. Think about this for a second. You take all your hundreds of servers, and you buy one big honking server — with lots of redundancy of course so the hardware doesn’t fail — and migrate all of your applications and services to virtual machines running on this big honking server. Now you have a single point of failure … no I mean you have…”, he dug deep into his mind searching for the bullet list that he recalled from slide 3 at the training session, “you have improved manageability, yes, improved manageability, consolidation, efficient resource utilisation, expandability. And, and… you can migrate your virtual machine with all its services to another server at any time. That’s the beauty of virtualisation. You can just plonk the VM on any of your servers”.

“Woah”, the manager falls back reeling in amazement.

“That’s right”, the management guru-in-the-making moves in for the kill, “let me just say that again: you can consolidate all your servers into one server, saving hardware cost, but then at the same time you can distribute your services across many many servers by virtualising them”.

“Awesome… I have always been worried by Moore’s Law. This is just, I mean, just amazing technology to solve it. I think we should bring in my sys admin, er I mean, IT architect”.

The call goes out for the IT architect and in walks a bearded bloke with a T-shirt depicting some sort of a red devilish figure holding a trident.

“We need to implement virtualisation for our data centre”, declares the pioneering captain of enterprise computing.

The McKinsey man steps in, “Imagine“, he stretches out his arms wide, “all your tens of servers consolidated into one single server”. His arms implode, his hands meet to form a cup (within which we presume the single server resides).

But…”, the IT architect starts to object.

“I know”, nods the consultant, “I know. How? Yes? Virtualisation. That’s how”.

But…”, the IT architect persists.

“I know”, smiles the consultant, “what about security? That’s your concern, yes? It’s all built secure from the bottom up. AAA certified by Moody’s Computing”.

“But”, says the IT architect, finally squeezing in a larger part of his sentence, “we don’t have tens of servers. We have three servers which implement our core services including DNS, Mail, web applications, …”.

“Three?”, the McKinsey wunderkind turns pale, “Three? That can’t be. A study by our team has demonstrated that an enterprise of your size has a computing hardware resource overhead of 43.5″.

“So, we can’t do virtualisation?”, the boss is crushed and puzzled.

“Clearly”, McKinsey’s voice took on a steely tone, “you are not yet ready for advanced technology such as this when you are not able to even meet industry standards on such a simple metric as computing hardware resource overhead”.

“Can I go now”, asks the sys admin, “we have a performance issue on one of the servers that you said we had no budget to upgrade, and I have to move the DNS service to the secondary, while I add memory scrounged from other systems to the first server”.

“Oh”, the consultant is curious, “how will you migrate your … what did you call it? … DNS service?”

“Change the config file and bring it up as the master”, replies the sys admin as he heads for the door.

“Oh my God”, the whiz stares at the IT geek as if he were some prehistoric monster, “I wonder if you had virtualisation what you could be!”.

A verger?”, quips the hacker as he waves goodbye.

7 Responses  
  • S.K writes:


    Brilliant piece of writing. Full of punches and intelligent humour on every line.

    I had a feeling of deja vu while reading your take on virtualization. The CIO of Polaris made a presentation to the members of the Computer Society of India recently where he hailed their experience with virtualization as a thrilling success. Yes, as you predicted they went for a \fully loaded\ monolithic server and gloated over that choice. Pat came a question from a kid, \will it not be a ‘single point of failure’?\. He mumbled something inaudibly and before I could take up the cue and insist on a loud answer, the Chairman announced dinner!

    Perhaps Polaris had engaged McKinsey or one of its clones!



  • S.K writes:

    Thanks, Ravi.

    I think you have to change the link to the verger story to something that is live, since Yahoo! Geocities has conked out.


  • Vasanthi writes:

    Brilliant piece Ravi. Reminds of my first assignment at a certain govt establishment in India, where I was asked if I knew to write an endless loop. The idea was to run this on the newly acquired vax system and boost the CPU utilization so as to justify its purchase to the upper mgmt.

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