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Butterfly Effect in Virtualized Environments

How small inconsequential events can have radical consequences down the line

In 1969 Edward Lorenz, the famed meteorologist and Chaos Theory proponent, introduced the concept now known as the "Butterfly Effect" when he posed the famous question: "Does the flap of a butterfly's wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas?" The Butterfly Effect theory describes the phenomenon of how small variations in a dynamic system can subsequently cause larger and more complex variations over the long term.

Today's modern virtualized data center represents a new kind of dynamic system. Just as the Brazilian butterfly may set off a tornado a world away, any change to the virtualized objects that are the components of the virtual infrastructure can have severe and unintended consequences to virtualized systems, networks, and data centers. As virtualization technologies are deployed in live production environments, the potential for small changes at the virtual layer disrupting the virtual and physical network resources are becoming a real concern.

Seeing Through the Fog of Virtualization
The evolution of IT has been marked by several distinct cycles. The adoption of virtualization in the data center is proving to be the next major paradigm shift as was the change from mainframe to client/server computing in years past. The next advance in the corporate infrastructure is now underway with the broad embrace of cloud computing, marked by the use of Software-as-a-Service (SaaS). Cloud computing will become increasingly more prevalent once more servers and desktops are virtualized and migrating servers in the cloud is as easy as dragging and dropping an icon onto a remote server.

Clearly, the virtual data center is quickly becoming a reality and organizations that deploy virtualization are now coming to grips with a new set of management challenges. Jim Frey, a senior analyst at Enterprise Management Associates, coined the phrase "Fog of Virtualization" to describe this new challenge. Since one cannot manage or control what they can't see, virtual data center administrators are experiencing management and policy enforcement limitations.

Visibility into both the virtual and physical infrastructure is becoming a crucial operating requirement. Administrators need a visual representation of their virtual environment to understand the entire virtual network, track changes, and manage both their physical and virtual infrastructure. Virtualization creates an invisible line where servers and applications are easily moved and managed by multiple cross-functional organizational departments. Not only can servers, storage, and networks can be dynamically managed as a single pool of resources but servers, switches, and networks can be created at the click of a mouse with applications moving seamlessly from one physical server to another.

Consequently such a dynamic environment can create issues uncommon in traditional physical environments. Policies can be defined to dynamically move virtual machines based on resource utilization or for disaster recovery and business continuity. This automated mobility means that administrators only know the current location of a virtual machine. Of course, with virtualization it's fast and easy to deploy new servers. Perhaps a little too easy, as administrators struggle to control this new breed of virtual server sprawl which adds another layer of complexity and decreases the cost savings to the organization. Virtual environments are subject to an extreme number of infrastructure configuration changes that tend to obfuscate the data center as a whole - understanding how components are connected, and the consequences of changes, can mean the difference between success and failure.

To maintain proper and secure configuration in a virtual environment, organizations must be able to track all infrastructure changes in real-time to maintain an accurate model of the virtual environment. If Murphy were a data center administrator, his law might read: "A misconfigured device possesses a risk equal to one that's unpatched for known vulnerabilities." Virtualization makes configuration of virtual infrastructure a point-and-click operation, opening the doors for simple human error.

The Unintended Consequences of Interdependent Systems
Large virtual infrastructures have grown so complex and interdependent that the Butterfly Effect is emerging as a real threat. There are a number of dynamic forces at work in virtual systems, and changes to one part of the infrastructure can have far-reaching consequences. The downside of these complex interdependencies is that human mistakes, even small errors in configuration, can manifest themselves as major problems down the road. These forces conspire to put pressure on both the system and administrators, increasing the probability of mistakes and making their impact more far-reaching and costly. IT specialists attempting to configure, change, release, and support critical applications can find themselves facing a daunting reality.

The Butterfly Effect in the virtual data center is exacerbated by a complex infrastructure designed to support multi-tiered networks, interdependencies between different layers of infrastructure, fewer IT resources, and more applications that require changes and demands to support new initiatives like service-oriented IT and distributed architectures. Administrators are struggling to manage the Butterfly Effect while trying to meet the conflicting challenges of providing the continuous availability of critical applications. But achieving continuous availability in complex virtual environments is no small task.

More Stories By Hezi Moore

Hezi Moore is founder and Chief Technology Officer of Reflex Systems. He brings more than 15 years experience in security, networking and entrepreneurial expertise to Reflex Systems. In his role of CTO, he is responsible for shaping the company's technology strategy and defining the roadmap for future design and development of innovative, integrated network security solutions and delivering them to market. Moore led the effort to develop the industry's first Virtual Security Appliance (VSA) that provides visibility and security for virtual network infrastructure. Prior to founding Reflex Systems, Moore was president and co-founder of MicroTech Systems - a firm specializing in network design and configuration of point-of-sale systems - which was subsequently acquired by Retail Technologies International of Sacramento, California. He has also held such diverse occupations as a technical support and research analyst for GE Technology. Moore was a pioneer of the automated network intrusion response system, the concept out of which Reflex Systems grew.

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