The Large White Pill – Virtualisation Lessons from Star Trek

Let’s go back in time.

Can any trekkies out there still remember Star Trek 4: The Voyage Home?
(Released in 1986 and directed by Leonard Nimoy, who recently passed away.)

The crew of the USS Enterprise went back in time to save the Earth, and found themselves in 1984. The entire movie was an interesting insight into how primitive our way of life will look to people from the future, but there’s one scene I have always remembered.

What are these, the Dark Ages?

McCoy is the doctor on the Enterprise, and is in disguise in a 20th Century hospital.

mccoyMcCoy: [McCoy, masked and in surgical garb, passes an elderly woman groaning on a gurney in the hallway] What’s the matter with you?
Elderly patient: [weakly] Kidney
Elderly patient: dialysis.
McCoy: [genuinely surprised] Dialysis?
[musing to himself]
McCoy: What is this, the Dark Ages?
[He turns back to the patient and hands her a large white pill]
McCoy: Here,
McCoy: you swallow that, and if you have any more problems, just call me!
[He pats her cheek and leaves]

And then later in the movie, the patient is seen practically leaping for joy.

Elderly patient: [the dialysis patient is being wheeled down the hall after being given the pill by McCoy]
Elderly patient: The doctor gave me a pill, and I grew a new kidney! The doctor gave me a pill, and I grew a new kidney!
Intern #1: [in disbelief, walking ahead of the patient] Fully functional?
Intern #2: [incredulous] Fully functional!

I’m looking forward to the day when a single pill will cure kidney dialysis !

Do you remember?

In IT, we don’t have to go back a few centuries to see how much the industry has changed. The large white pill we’re going to talk about today is server virtualisation. It’s a field that’s grown so quickly that it’s hard to remember that not too long ago, it didn’t even exist. The first time I ever heard the word was in 2005 when I saw one of the early versions of VMWare Workstation. In 2006, ESXi 3.0 was released, and everything took off from there.

Recent growth has been nothing short of amazing. In 2010, around 25% of all x86 server workloads were virtualised. That jumped to 40% in 2011, 50% in 2012, 66% in 2013, and a massive 70% in mid-2014.

It’s hard to imagine a world before virtualisation. As recently as ten years ago, the physical server was the only game in town. We knew no other way.

The problem was that each of these server could run just one application. Sure, you could ‘cheat’ and run more than one, but invariably, you ran into problems, particularly when you called the vendor for support.

However, running a single application on a server meant that on average, servers were 25% utilized at best. Servers had to be sized to deal with peak loads, but this meant that most servers were sitting doing nothing most of the time. CPU cycles just wasting away, while we spent a fortune on power and cooling.

Virtualisation saves the day. Or does it?

Virtualisation was able to bridge the gap. Virtual machines allowed IT administrators to create separation between applications on the same physical server. And by basically redefining a server to be a collection of files, it changed so many other things, Disaster recovery and backup were now just a case of getting the relevant files on another server. It massively lowered the cost of power and cooling in datacenters. Not to mention the money saved on hardware.

Server virtualisation is just the beginning. Todays IT administrators now have a plethora of technologies at their disposal. Application virtualization, Desktop virtualisation, Containers, Software-Defined networking, converged fabric, Public Clouds, the list goes on and on. And the same technology that changed the industry has now added a layer of complexity that makes managing infrastructure require the skills of a ninja.

On the other side, the demands on IT have also changed dramatically. I’ve heard someone refer to it as the “App Economy. We’re all putting demands on IT infrastructure like never before. Organisations are doing all they can to meet that demand. Uptime is taken for granted, it’s all about performance now. If Facebook is down for 5 minutes, people are talking about it all over Twitter in seconds.

With all the technology available, you would think meeting this demand is easy. But what has happened is that in order to make sure end users don’t experience downtime or performance issues, organisations have started to over provision. Which brings us right back full circle. Virtualisation helped us to get more out our existing hardware, but now, we’re losing that benefit because we want to reduce risk. And losing the very benefits virtualisation helped us realise.

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