The Virtual Future of Rail

17 September 2009 (Last Updated September 17th, 2009 18:30)

From better efficiency to lower costs, virtualisation is changing the way IT operates in rail. Gareth Evans finds out how.

The Virtual Future of Rail

Virtualisation is one of the fastest growing trends in business computing and according to a recent report from analysts at IDC – one of the world's premier sources of market intelligence for the IT industry – the technology's momentum is still building. Companies are increasingly recognising the benefits to be gained by having a number of mutually independent virtual operating systems running on a single physical machine – rather than having a separate piece of hardware for each – and the balance sheet says it all.

In 2008 the number of physical servers shipped fell by 25%, but the proportion of machines with a virtualised platform grew by the same amount, leading IDC to predict that by the end of 2009, for the first time, there will be more virtual machines (VMs) than physical servers deployed throughout Europe alone. If these purchases continue, IDC forecasts a typical data-centre ratio of virtual to physical of 3:2 by 2013. Their conclusions are broadly mirrored by rival global IT analyst, Gartner, which anticipates that the 2009 revenue from virtualisation software worldwide will grow to $2.7bn – up more than 42% on the previous year – as market penetration hits 20%.

Clearly, virtualisation has come a long way from its early iterations, but for airport operators, many of its benefits have only recently begun to become fully apparent.

Going virtual

Part of the reason for this lies in the widespread current pressure for the railway operator to reduce costs and improve operational efficiency. For applications that are intended to be used on a small to medium-scale, virtualisation is one of the most effective ways of streamlining a range of traditionally time-hungry tasks, while simultaneously minimising the demand for IT resources and infrastructure to achieve them.

"Virtualisation is one of the fastest growing trends in business computing."

Virtualisation comes in many forms. One of the most common ways it is used is with IT storage – where it allows a programme to run in virtual storage. This allows resources to be turned on and off as they are required, which can lead to massive cost savings, especially when it comes to power.

Essentially, virtualisation software can simulate real environments – from the desktop to the server, adding a new level of flexibility to IT operations.

Virtual technologies were first formally recognised in 1965 by Gordon Moore in his eponymous 'law' (Moore's Law states that raw computing power grows exponentially). With data density doubling every 18 months or so, modern servers are typically left running significantly under capacity; virtualisation simply offers a mechanism to take up the slack and utilise some of the spare capability that normally lies untapped. In effect, VMs make computing resources work harder.

Cutting carbon

The allure of virtualisation, however, goes beyond just getting more done with less. Running fewer machines means a lower power demand and with energy costs rising and traditional server farm / data centre power consumption burgeoning, in a business environment focussed on carbon footprints, this makes the VM route look particularly appealing.

According to an informal model designed by the international IT consultancy Atos Origin, upping server CPU (central processing unit – the part of the computer that gives instructions to a computer's memory) uses 15% to 60% can carve nearly 90% off energy costs – even when price hikes are factored in. To put this in the wider context, figures released by the American Council for Energy-Efficient Economy suggest that IT equipment accounts for around 6% of total US electricity usage – and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that a quarter of this is down to data centres.

The potential carbon savings that virtualisation could make achievable are correspondingly impressive. The EPA estimates that simply continuing the current uptake rate of server consolidation could slash US carbon emissions by 15 million tons by 2011, while the Atos Origin model suggests that migrating server function in a conventional data centre of 3,000 machines could avoid more than 4,800t of CO2 annually. In sustainability terms, the stakes are high.

Very real benefits

Virtualisation offers a number of other potential benefits. It can, for instance, provide companies requiring specialist or bespoke software with a unique opportunity for future-proofing applications and operations, as well as keeping old data accessible for ongoing use. Running software on a properly configured VM ensures that old applications can be accommodated, even if they require a correspondingly old operating system, ensuring compatibility even through multiple hardware upgrades.

"For rail operators, virtualisation's benefits have only recently begun to become fully apparent."

By the same token, it becomes possible to resurrect data that had previously been lost to the onward march of time and development. Long-dead information can once again be viewed by creating a virtual environment to replicate the technology that was current when it was first stored – and today's VM will run better than the original ever did, even when brand new and back in its heyday.

Moreover, should such a virtual machine eventually become incompatible with later generations of hardware, the possibility always remains to run it within a 'new' virtual machine itself.

Achieving high server density is one of the key characteristics of virtualisation, which in practice means that there are considerable savings to be made both in terms of space and capital expenditure. Thus, consolidating a number of conventional servers reduces hardware purchase costs, while maximising the physical resources within a minimised physical footprint offers significant cost-savings on their subsequent maintenance – as well as freeing up valuable floor-space.

Virtualisation can also provide a welcome measure of security, although it would appear that the potential for 'self healing' in VMs, which has been trumpeted in some parts of the industry, still has yet to make serious inroads into the commercial sphere. However, physical security is certainly one area in which virtualisation scores, since the inherent ease with which VMs can be copied makes them immune to the sort of real-world threats to which conventional machines are vulnerable, such as fire, flood or loss – always assuming the relevant copy has been made, of course.

For stakeholders in the railway industry, as the following case study shows, all of this means that opting to go virtual can deliver some very real benefits.

Botswana goes virtual

Botswana Railways is Botswana's leading transporter of bulk goods, with a railway network comprising a 640km main line, three branch lines and a series of crossing loops, sidings and station yards. In common with other rail operators, the company relies on a robust IT environment to manage normal business functions such as payroll and accounting, as well as performing a range of industry-specific logistical tasks such as scheduling, signalling and train monitoring.

With competition growing, it became clear that its existing IT infrastructure was incompatible with the increasingly pressing need to adopt greater operational efficiencies and embrace new technologies to keep the trains running safely, economically and on time.

To address problems of complex, time-consuming IT administration and data security, Botswana Railways opted for a cost-efficient solution based on VMware Infrastructure 3 software and Dell hardware.

Originally the company had one server for each of its applications – giving them a total of 12 under-utilised machines, each running at around two percent capacity. Virtualisation consolidated its server function into four Dell PowerEdge 1955 blade and 1950 servers, with a software bundle which also included Windows Server 2003, Dell OpenManage, Microsoft Exchange Server 2007, SQL Server 2005, Office SharePoint Server 2007 and Symantec Backup Exec.

"Companies are increasingly recognising the benefits to be gained by having a number of mutually independent virtual operating systems."

The Botswana Railway virtualisation project has since brought a number of advantages. As well as helping the company reduce infrastructure costs and lower energy demand, the new server / storage environment is simpler to manage, occupies a smaller physical footprint and provides a scalable IT infrastructure, enabling new technologies to be swiftly and readily adopted. Additionally, with administrative tasks demanding less of their time, IT staff have been freed up to concentrate more on innovative activities and the enhanced application delivery has brought significant commercial benefits to the operation.

The virtual future for rail

How the future of virtualisation will play out remains to be seen. The added robustness and security that 'self healing' could deliver is one obvious area for development, while some commentators in the industry are tipping the market for hosted virtual desktops as the sector's next big growth area.

The virtualisation software landscape may also be set for change, with analysts at Gartner expecting Microsoft to challenge the current market supremacy of VMware in the coming years, particularly for SME-level businesses.

Whatever direction the technology does ultimately take, it is hard to envisage it ceasing to be relevant to the railway industry as the pressure grows for efficiency and profitability, and initiatives to cut carbon emissions ramp up. The potential benefits are just too great.