Get Started With Virtualization
Whether your business is a cash-strapped startup with limited IT infrastructure or a growing company with rapidly changing computing needs, virtualization could be the key to solving a wide array of tech problems. Virtualization is a technology that seems to offer something for everyone; its ability to run multiple virtual servers on a single physical server is just the most obvious feature.
Virtualization can also improve disaster recovery, load balancing, and software testing; reduce hardware costs; save energy; and reduce the physical size of your company's data center. Virtual servers can be moved, while still running, from one physical server to another. It is also much easier to create a new virtual server without worrying about the underlying hardware that it runs on.
If you are new to virtualization, you'll have many things to consider before plunging ahead. To help, I've assembled eight tips that can smooth the move to virtualization at your company.
It is important, as effectiveness guru Stephen Covey would say, to "begin with the end in mind." While your first virtualization project may be just a single server "learning experience," you should still think about your longer-term goals before you begin. This can guide your experimentation, what you need to learn, and your choices for both hardware and software.
What do you hope virtualization will accomplish for you? Give you greater flexibility in operating your data center? Improve redundancy and disaster recovery? Reduce hardware and software costs? Decrease IT headcount? Cut your electric bill? Keep your company from having to build a new data center quite so soon?
Virtualization can help accomplish all these things. It can also allow you to run applications that require an operating system different from the one a particular machine normally uses. It can also deliver virtual PC functionality over the network, allowing users to work with no applications or data actually resident on their machines.
All these things are possible, but not automatic. Once set up, virtual servers are much more flexible and easier to support than having an equal number of physical servers. However, the virtual world is different and takes getting used to.
Virtualization allows companies to reduce the total number of physical servers necessary to run their data centers. Reducing the amount of server hardware reduces energy, cooling, and floor space requirements. Each has a dollar value associated with it, and these expenses should decrease, perhaps dramatically, as physical servers are replaced by virtual servers.
Understand That Applications Rule
Your first contact in building a virtualization program should be with your line-of-business applications vendors. Do they support virtualization and, if so, on what platforms? Do they have hardware recommendations? Are user-to-user virtualization forums available where you might meet others facing the same challenges you face?
Choose between VMware and Microsoft
The truth about choosing a hypervisor, the software that makes virtualization possible, is that you may not have a choice.
The line of business applications you run may have already made the decision for you. If your key applications are supported by only one hypervisor or the other, or if your vendor simply likes, say, VMware ESXi more than Microsoft's HyperVisor, your decision is made for you.
With experience, it may be possible to make the decision for yourself, but if easy migration is key, stick to the advice offered by your application vendors. They generally know what works best.
Microsoft is using pricing and other incentives to help customers remain true to Redmond as they virtualize, and VMware may find it hard to compete over the long haul. In some cases, customers say, Microsoft is already making it difficult, expensive, and sometimes even impossible to get support for its products running on VMware servers.
Many small businesses end up using both Microsoft and VMware hypervisors because of a mix of support versus performance issues. Or they may limit their first virtualization projects to a single company's hypervisor and the applications it best supports.
Make sure you have support issues solved before building a production system or risk the consequences. Also, look at pricing, as Microsoft has developed some virtualization-friendly pricing schemes.
Determine Your Hardware Needs
All of the major hardware vendors now offer systems specifically tailored for use with virtualization. These often come prepackaged with software, sometimes at attractive prices.
The systems may also come with specialized vendor support, which may be important for companies that lack virtualization experience or have complex needs.
Even if you do not want to purchase such a package, studying the hardware specifications may be useful for those who want to buy servers from other vendors or who want to run virtualization software on hardware they already own.
One way to get an idea of what will be required is to visit Dell's online Virtualization Advisor, which asks what you are running today and what you'd like to accomplish, and then offers a hardware/software configuration to accomplish that goal.
For example, a company that was running ten stand-alone Xeon-processor servers, with a total of 20GB of RAM and 300GB of storage capacity received a recommendation for two quad-core servers, each with a minimum of 21GB of RAM and 300GB of storage. The recommended solution also included a storage array, a management server, and a backup server.
Such consolidation may not be your goal, but the requirement for a new server with at least as much memory as all the servers you plan to combine, plus an extra 1GB or more for overhead, is a good starting point. A quad-core server may be overkill for a first virtualization project, but a dual-core one may not give you room to grow.
Determine How Many Servers You Need
Some small companies run a single physical server, and keep spare parts around to handle emergencies. Other companies buy two or more servers and may use clustering to provide additional redundancy.
Virtual servers can generally be restored to the same or a different physical server from a snapshot. If multiple servers are available, it may also be possible to drag and drop an application from one server to another, while the application is running. This is an important benefit of virtualization that makes data centers easier to manage and tremendously aids in disaster recovery.
A company's first exploration of virtualization may not include redundant servers, but they offer considerable benefits--at the price of significantly increased costs. As always, customers must gauge the risks acceptable to them and spend accordingly.
Know Where to Find Help--Even If You're Sure You Won't Need It
Vendor support can be great, but it has its limitations. All major vendors offer forums for product discussion and problem solving among customers. Virtualization is very new for most people. Customer-provided support may be able to help when vendors cannot, and the price is right.
You can also hire a vendor or consultant to do much of the work for you. This is not necessary if you are already managing physical servers and are willing to experiment a bit before setting up a production environment.
Very small businesses may want to hire a vendor to manage the project because they lack the necessary IT staff. Large companies may want to hire a consultant to do things such as computing return on investment and developing a project schedule.
Use Virtualization on Your Desktops
Virtualization isn't just for server applications. For example, the "XP mode" for Windows 7 is actually a copy of Microsoft's Virtual PC that can be used to run Windows XP alongside the new operating system.
Through desktop virtualization, a single desktop can run all the operating systems in your company, allowing easy testing before rolling out changes or applications to users. Virtualization is also how Macintosh users are able to run their "second favorite" operating system on their Macs and have a mixed desktop of Mac and Windows applications.
Virtualize Entire Desktop Systems for Your Users
Desktop virtualization is not for everyone. It is possible for a server to deliver an entire desktop and its applications to a remote PC, essentially acting as a terminal. In some industries, this approach makes sense, especially for businesses that are highly regulated and where IT needs especially tight control over user desktops.
Delivering virtual desktops is network and server intensive, and application performance at remote desktops may not be acceptable. However, if you have remote employees and want to strictly limit their access to information, it is one option for doing so.
David Coursey is the author of PC World's Tech Inciter blog. He tweets as techinciter and can be reached using the form at www.coursey.com/contact. He thanks Susan Bradley for technical assistance in the preparation of this article.