Beef Up Your Small Business IT With Virtualization

Small companies are always seeking ways to save a buck and, for many, making IT services more robust is often not a high priority. Virtualization is often seen as a feature of fancy, big-budget data centers, unfit for mom-and-pop businesses. But that's not an accurate perception. Here I’ll demonstrate examples of how server virtualization can easily and inexpensively work in a smaller shop.

I’ve walked into more than one small business’s data closet and found the duty of print serving delegated to some old retired desktop computer. Often I see QuickBooks or other small-business server apps being given this sort of treatment. I get why people do this: It’s hard to ask for funds to buy a shiny new server computer to perform a task as lowly as managing print jobs or serving QuickBooks. Computing hardware is frequently just an afterthought in the budgeting process.

Unfortunately, there are drawbacks to this approach. The main one is reliability. A computer on its last legs will die at an inconvenient time and whoever is in charge of IT will find out quickly how much people rely on it.

Fortunately, there’s an easy and cheap solution: virtualization. Any task relegated to an old computer would be better served by a virtual machine on a modern computer.

While VMware is happy to sell you its enterprise solutions, its free Server product is perfectly reliable and adequate for tasks like these.

An excellent tool to pair with VMware's free virtualization server is vCenter Converter, which can convert your existing computer to a virtual machine. This is also free.

Caveat: Migrating an existing Windows computer using vCenter Converter requires reactivating Windows and possibly a call to Microsoft. Additionally, if your license is tied to a particular OEM, as is usually the case with large vendors, the license isn’t transferrable to a new computer and the key won’t work.

For 10 or fewer users, you can use Windows XP or Vista for many server tasks. For greater than 10 users, look at Windows Server 2008 which retails for $1,000, but can be had for closer to $700.

If you are using Windows Small Business Server 2008 Premium, its license includes the right to run an additional server either on separate hardware or virtually.

If you are plunking down cash on a new server OS, you may as well put that server license to use. If you’re currently running a single Active Directory Domain Controller, you should make your virtual machine a redundant DC. While you’re at it, why not provide redundant DNS, and DHCP services too. All this still takes very little in the way of resources and will run very well inside a virtual machine.

I recommend installing your virtual machine on a separate drive from other apps on your physical server, especially if the server doesn’t have redundant disks. The only thing worse than having a hard disk failure take down one server is having it take down two. An external drive is even better, since if your host computer fails, you can plug the external drive into a different computer, install VMware server and have your virtual server back up in minutes. For faster recovery, keep the VMware server install file and key on the same disk. A smart additional step would be to use a redundant external disk solution like the Data Robotics Drobo, which starts at $429 and provides redundancy using up to four SATA drives.

Suddenly your IT environment is using less power, is far more redundant, and you’ve done it all by leveraging your current systems.

Michael Scalisi is an IT manager based in Alameda, California.

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