Once the virtual machine became popular on servers, it wasn’t long before IT professionals started thinking about applying the same concept to other pieces of IT infrastructure. A short time later, storage and network virtualization came along, giving rise to the notion of virtual data centers, also known as software-defined data centers.

The coming of a virtual data center_WIDEThis evolution should come as no surprise. Each virtual machine instance creates a virtual switch that is used to communicate with other virtual machines. In effect, this creates an overlay that virtualizes the network used to connect different servers inside a data center.

As important as virtual switches are to networking, a key aspect is that virtual software can be programmed. Instead of having to manually configure each piece of hardware in the data center, IT organizations can now automate the provisioning of every aspect of that IT environment.

This capability has profound implications on how IT will be managed going forward. Rather than having to hire administrators who specialize in the server, storage, and networking systems that make up the data center, IT administrators will be able to holistically—and more easily—manage the data center environment.

That’s a critical requirement if IT organizations are to manage data centers at scale. The simple fact is that without some ability to automate the management of IT infrastructure, the cost of deploying large numbers of application workloads will be prohibitive. Many IT organizations can afford to acquire the equipment. But even if an organization could find the people with the appropriate skills for the job, the size of the payroll would be beyond the reach of all but a few organizations.

Simplifying the network environment

Network virtualization also sets the stage for simplifying the network environment. For example, rather than requiring organizations to deploy a dedicated appliance network, virtualization enables them to turn physical appliances into a piece of software that can run on commodity servers or commercial silicon. Once again, the number of administrators needed to deploy and configure all that infrastructure is sharply reduced. Just as importantly, the amount of energy needed to power the data center would also be sharply reduced.

But perhaps most significant of all, virtualization makes the data center a lot more flexible. New services can be layered on top of existing infrastructure components in a matter of minutes. And these services can be combined in a way that gives rise to the software-defined enterprise.

Arguably, the software-defined data center is really just a means toward building a software-defined enterprise,which is one reason that market research firms such as Research and Markets are forecasting that the software-defined data center market will experience an annual compound growth rate of more than 97 percent. Obviously, that’s on a relatively small base given the maturity of virtual data centers. But the report makes it clear that virtual data centers are a major IT priority.

The real challenge is finding a set of wide area network services spanning multiple instances of virtual data centers running in any number of cloud computing environments that will be both robust and flexible enough to support a truly software-defined enterprise.

Michael Vizard is an independent business writer and the author of this blog. AT&T has sponsored this blog post.