Now that we’ve been back from the holidays for a month, I’d like to round out the 2013 predictions season with a look at the year ahead in server virtualization. If you’re like me (or this New York Times columnist), you’ll agree that a little procrastination can sometimes be a good thing to help collect and organize your plans for the year ahead. (Did you buy that rationalization?)

We’re now more than a decade into the era of widespread x86 server virtualization. Hypervisors are certainly a mature (if not peaceful) technology category, and the consolidation benefits of virtualization are now uncontestable. 77% of you will be using virtualization by the end of this year, and you’re running as many as 6 out of 10 workloads in virtual machines. With such strong penetration, what’s left? In our view: plenty. It’s time to ask your virtual infrastructure, “What have you done for me lately?”

With that question in mind, I asked my colleagues on the I&O team to help me predict what the year ahead will hold. Here are the trends in 2013 you should track closely:

  1. Consolidation savings won’t be enough to justify further virtualization. For most I&O pros, the easy workloads are already virtualized. Looking ahead at 2013, what’s left are the complex business-critical applications the business can’t run without (high-performance databases, ERP, and collaboration top the list). You won’t virtualize these to save on hardware; you’ll do it to make them mobile, so they can be moved, protected, and duplicated easily. You’ll have to explain how virtualizing these apps will make them faster, safer, and more reliable—then prove it.
  2. Your virtual environment will have to be dynamic or you’re throwing money away. Are your VMs mobile today, or is your virtual environment basically static? If you’re not taking advantage of hypervisor resource management to automate VM placement and optimize host utilization and performance, you should be. Do you regularly check consolidation ratios or right-size your VMs? If not, you’re not getting the most value for your virtualization dollar. The tools are there and you probably own some of them. In 2013, you should start to trust them.
  3. Resiliency and disaster recovery will drive most new virtualization projects. According to the latest Forrsights surveys, improving business continuity and disaster recovery now tops the list of customer motivations for adopting virtualization. There’s already a healthy and vibrant market for backup, recovery, snapshot, replication and archive technologies designed for VM files and data. This year we’ll see more I&O pros take advantage of data protection and DR tools designed for and integrated directly into their virtualization management tools. Virtualization ROI will increasingly be driven by improvements in infrastructure resiliency.
  4. Consolidated virtualization management tools will get much smarter with analytics. Both VMware and Microsoft have consolidated their virtualization management suites and now offer simpler bundles of monitoring and analytics, plus capacity, configuration, and performance management and automation features. After a wave of acquisitions (including Dell’s Quest buy), look for the major players to spend the first half of 2013 digesting and integrating these new assets. Flooded with virtualization monitoring metrics? Tackle your virtualization “big data” problem with analytics-driven decision-making. From textual patterns (log files) to event correlations and configuration events, there’s a lot of intelligence hidden in your virtual environment. Start unlocking it this year.
  5. We’ll let the application dictate the best virtualization platform, not the other way around. The debate over hypervisor features is effectively over for many customers as the major platforms have essentially come to parity. Heterogeneous virtualization is here to stay. We’re past the days when all applications are virtualized onto a single primary hypervisor. That’s good news for anyone worried about lock-in. Open source hypervisors and Linux virtualization are already in place (and good enough) in many enterprises and there are plenty of Linux workloads yet to be virtualized. Your application and OS choices should determine the best way to virtualize—you can then layer on advanced management for the apps that really need it. All the virtualization management vendors will (finally) embrace heterogeneity in 2013. 
  6. The hypervisor cost wars will continue…and continue to miss the point. Microsoft will continue to make a dent in VMware’s dominance, especially in the SMB and in departmental deployments, but not only because Hyper-V is free. Whether or not the VM container is “free” is largely irrelevant now (you can thank the cloud for that), because you’re really paying for the management stack, and that’s a good thing. Whether you love vCenter or System Center or any other systems management suite, you can still have your choice of hypervisor, including open source options. This means VMware’s under intense pressure to keep eyeballs locked into their management tools, which is a good thing for customers. Management tools will get more powerful and cheaper in 2013. That’s where the battle should be.
  7. It’ll be year one of the software-defined datacenter. The software-defined datacenter (SDD or SDDC) concept is the next logical step toward highly-automated and efficient IT operations, and it’s a natural extension of virtualization to the storage and network tiers. By mid-year, we’ll start to see the first integrated solutions for software-defined compute, network, and storage come together. VMware’s made a big bet here with the Nicira buy, and already has a powerful suite of storage integration APIs. Microsoft is investing heavily here, too, with a rich set of storage and network virtualization capabilities in Windows Server 2012. If you can provision a new VM in seconds but it takes days to allocate storage or network resources for it, you should be watching this space. We’re just at the beginning. 
  8. The hybrid datacenter will be more popular than pure private or public clouds. Forrester customers are clear: hybrid datacenters with a mix of on-premises virtual resources and off-premises cloud workloads are the future, and the future is now. Stop worrying about whether your shared virtualized environment is a true “private cloud” and focus instead on extending it to include public cloud infrastructure and applications. Stop buying infrastructure management tools and start buying tools that let you easily provision and auto-configure complex services. Infrastructure templates and application patterns will become increasingly important this year. Your business customers want you to deliver IT services, not infrastructure. 
  9. Your CFO will demand cost transparency for virtual environments. Expect to see much more senior management interest in the cost of virtual environments in 2013. Do you know the incremental cost to deploy a new virtualized application into your current environment? Do you track the annualized cost to manage and maintain a VM, including its underlying storage and network infrastructure? If not, spend time this year to up your IT financial management game. Virtualized workloads are easier to move out of your datacenter and not just to the cloud—hosting providers want the business, too. Make sure you can explain your virtualized workload unit costs when it comes time to defend them.

What do you see in store for your virtual environment this year? What's keeping you up at night, and what's the one thing you want to fix first? I'd love to hear your plans to drive new value from your virtualization efforts in 2013.

Thanks to Rich Fichera, Rachel Dines, and James Staten for their contributions.