How Virtualisation Improves the Environment: VMing the World

I am on the plane home from Nice, where I attended the inaugural European VMworld in nearby Cannes. It was an interesting event, and I will be saying more on my about that on my general tech blog monkchips. But I wanted to say a little bit about the ecological value of virtualisation generally and VMware specifically.

Firstly – what is virtualisation? It is simply the ability to pool computing resources so that can be accessed by many devices and services. If you can run 10 different applications on the same server for example why not do so, as long as performance is acceptable to end users…

VMware has evidently begun to market its green credentials more aggressively, and in my opinion has every right to do so.

Why? Because Green is Lean, and Lean is Green.

Running VMware on production servers for Windows-based applications can drive utilisation up from only 15% into the 90%+ mark. Not only can virtualisation help an organisation to make its existing servers run more efficiently, it can also reduce total numbers of servers by adding more flexibility into the mix. What is the difference between a QA server, a development machine, or a production box? Not much. By making it easier to provision, re-provision, and decommission servers virtualisation can reduce the need for every silo to have its own boxes. Centralising a server sprawl can help an organisation get a handle on its total energy consumption, and potentially lower cooling and energy costs through economies of scale.

There is a counter-argument that customers will simply max out what they have – efficiency gains will be “wasted” on new workloads. But that is a bit like saying recycling is a waste of time, designed to assuage middle class guilt. This is to confuse benefits with justifications.

If the only reason an organisation chooses to go down the virtualisation route is to lower costs that is fantastic. Doing so doesn’t make the efficiency gains less significant. Cutting costs and going green go hand in hand. If there is a single narrative frame that sums up just that just how addicted to abundance and waste we have become its its the idea that companies and nations can’t invest in using energy more efficiently because it will make them less competitive.  The current US administration bought and sold this line hook line and sinker. Oil is at $100 a barrel and we’re arguing that investing in more efficient power use will harm the economy.  You can’t make this stuff up.

While data centers may only account for 3% of worldwide energy consumption we should still try and drive the figure down. Of course demand is going to massively increase – as we move away from carbon miles to bit miles, where content that can be digitised is digitised – but that is all the more reason to become more efficient. The demand for IT may be infinite, but the resources to run our systems are not.

At the risk of dorking out even more I was also intrigued by another VMware technology, called “thin provisioning” – which rather than storing a desktop image for each machine, stores the differences between them. This “linked clone” technology reduces storage requirements by a 10:1 ratio.

Its not only VMware that offers virtualisation. The IBM mainframe is the most efficient computing device ever built for data intensive workloads, largely because its a virtualised platform. Unix server vendors now offer far more efficient servers than they used to – virtualisation is key. Microsoft is now muscling in on VMware’s market, which is brilliant news- the two competing should make servers and PCs even more efficient. Dell, HP and IBM are all now going to ship servers pre-installed with VMware’s software.

I heard a few nice examples at VMworld. Thus Aspen, the reinsurance company, is currently rolling out thin clients, more like old school mainframe terminals but with rich media capabilities, to its end-users. Aspen calculates, in conjunction with their consulting partner BSG, that the average Windows PC consumes about 150 Watts of power. The new thin clients- nearer 8. Watts not to like? Aspen is even considering rolling out these thin clients to its users at home.

VMware CEO Diane Green (nice name in the context, eh!) put forward a few nice examples in her keynote- including projects at the World Wildlife Fund and Sheffield Hallam University. Competitors may complain this is just green-washing, but in this context its absolutely appropriate.

Efficiency is green- we should praise efficiency, not bury it. The reasons don’t matter- but the results do. I spoke to someone this morning who said customers don’t really care about green, but just wanted to know how many dollars they would save in deploying virtualisation technology, and therefore tech companies shouldn’t talk about eco issues. I think this misunderestimates some important dynamics. Few customers are going to choose a technology just because its labelled green, its true, but some might well be put off by a supplier arguing that green issues don’t matter.

If green IT is a fad I am going to celebrate it while it lasts. VMware has already done a lot for the environment, just by helping us make Windows servers more efficient, whether or not it markets the fact. Thanks Diane and Mendel!

disclosure: VMware, Dell and HP are not clients. IBM and Microsoft are. VMware paid for my travel and expenses to Nice.


  1. says

    Speaking of nice names in context, the CEO of Capital One is Rich Fairbanks. Great post on VMs. Our company would have several times the number of servers without them, not to mention wasted processing power. Any other way just isn’t elegant, or green.

  2. Marc says

    The utilization statement is a bit vague… “can drive utilisation up from only 15% into the 90%+ mark” — heck, I can do that with a poorly designed program. I’ve had IE do that by itself when bringing up a badly-designed website.

    It could be worded better: “VMWare allows the system to utilize more of the idle processor power, getting gains of 500%”.

    CPU utilization vs system utilization? Heh.

  3. mohamed ghouse says

    Totally agreed with you. Virtualisation also reduce the rack space required for servers and the cooling cost associated with it. Thereby contributing towards the minimizing the global warming.


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