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With virtualisation remaining the hottest topic in the industry, we grabbed the opportunity to talk to IBM's Rich Lechner, VP of Virtualisation, as he dropped into the UK on a European tour, talking to customers, partners and press. He shed some light on both IBM's role within virtualisation, and where he and IBM think the technology is headed.

Q: Tell us something about what you do. A: I'm responsible for virtualisation in IBM across the board -- hardware, software and services. We see it as a way for clients to save money and cut costs. It'll have a profound impact on customers' future business, their data, everything.

I've a set of products I'm responsible for and I work with others in industry, such as collaboration with the likes of Xen, Red Hat, and VMware, as well as standards bodies such as DMTF, and SNIA. I also spend a lot of time talking to customers.

Q: What's the significance of IBM's appointing a VP of virtualisation? A: I'm a member of IBM's senior leadership team. The company taps into that when it wants to promote a particular technology or other development. I've been responsible for OS/2, zSeries mainframes and storage marketing among others.

Q: What are your customers saying about virtualisation? A: We regularly survey IBM and non-IBM customers, and 54 percent either have or will implement virtualisation this year. For SMBs -- that's companies with under 1,000 employees -- the adoption rate is the same as for big enterprises which is very unusual for a new technology. Sixty percent of all virtualisation engagements are in SMBs and their pain points are same as those of the big customers: cutting costs, consolidation, and handling storage growth while containing IT admin costs.

Virtualisation is like a microwave oven -- it's very complex and capable, and it brings rapid ROI with a simple application of the technology. For example, take storage: a customer can justify the cost of virtualisation through a single data migration. Then they can do tiered storage, disaster recovery and so on.

And until very recently the drivers have been cost reduction via better utilisation of floor space and so on. But in the last two quarters, customers have been saying that disaster recovery and higher availability are their main drivers, such as failover partitions, VMware's VMotion, and data replication services.

Q: What key points do you have for those implementing or thinking of implementing virtualisation? A: We encourage customers to start simple and take a holistic approach -- it's is a strategic, infrastructure-wide decision that will affect roll-outs for the next five to ten years, Bear in mind that total cost of ownership is becoming less important than flexibility, availability, and enabling SLAs.

Also, virtualisation can accelerate innovation within the organisation because IT systems people don't have to spend time doing mundane tasks like data migration but can instead spend time adding value to the business.

Q: Why has virtualisation taken off now and not, say, ten years ago? A: It's because of the coming together of three things: first, we have highly scalable servers now, both x86 and Unix based; virtualisation technologies in the mainframe are now migrating to other platforms; and finally, the advent of portable applications thanks to Java and Linux -- Linux was the catalyst as it makes it easier to port applications.

Q: What's the end goal of virtualisation -- assuming there is one? A: We see systems becoming a heterogeneous multi-vendor set of storage and servers that look like a single mainframe. It's not just IBM saying that -- when customers are asked what they want their systems to look like in the future, they come to us with mainframe-like characteristics: scalable, flexible, highly available but also distributed. Add SOA and web services and it implies flexibility with an SLA enforced across multiple systems. All of this is enabled by virtualisation.

Q: What's IBM's role in the virtualisation world? A: We want to set platinum standards in system-level virtualisation -- and all the analysts say that's where we are. Also we help enable virtualisation across heterogeneous resources -- for example workload management now works in x86 or Unix environments, where the hardware resources consist of servers from Sun, Dell, IBM or whoever. It means SLAs are enforced across multiple systems, along with usage metering and accounting.

Q: What challenges can you see ahead for virtualisation? A: The main problems for customers are organisational barriers, such as when they move from physical resources that are owned by divisions within the organisation to a distributed architecture. Departments need to be assured they'll only pay for what they use -- on mainframes we've been able to do this for years.

Customers are also rapidly realising that management of the virtualisation environment is critical. Firstly, they don't want physical resources to be divorced from the virtualised environment -- in other words, they don't want a whole new set of management tools; they have enough. Secondly, they want management tools to work across broad physical resources. And thirdly, they want integration of those tools into enterprise management systems such as IBM's Tivoli.

But the single biggest challenge to virtualisation is a lack of skills, whether for those who are or who aren't doing virtualisation. So we're educating our services people and those of our partners to design and deploy systems for customers.

We've also created patterns for virtualisation implementation that customers can follow, such as how to design and implement networking, server selection and so on -- it's not IBM-specific as it's aimed as accelerating adoption. We had the same problem with web services and that proved a good template to adapt. And 65 percent of all customer engagements are led by our business partners, so it's good news for them.

Q: What's the role of open source in the virtualisation industry? A: It's important to innovation and collaboration in the industry and helps accelerate standards. For example, in the hypervisor space, Xen is an important choice in the x86 environment. In storage, IBM is part of storage group Aperi, an open source storage management group that conforms to SNIA standards and is designed to accelerate cross-storage management -- in fact, that's a proof point of open source's acceleration of standards.

Q: What keeps you awake at night in terms of competition? A: HP and EMC are playing in both markets, plus there are lots of small companies. There's lots of room, for example in virtualised appliances where there will be room for innovations.