By Brian McMurtry

Senior Network Engineer/Project Manager

On-Site Computer Solutions

As a Systems Administrator,  my passion is test-driving products that can significantly improve the quality or quantity of work productivity for my clients.  As a consultant, it’s vital to be well-acquainted with those products that will maximize the company’s bottom line.  It is also critical to not implement a product that isn’t proven.  In fact, On-Site Computer Solutions does not recommend adopting any technology in its first-generation form.  Too many things can go wrong with bleeding-edge products, leading to downtime and lost revenue for the client.  It’s a safe, conservative approach to IT, but it’s a proven path that I’ve found leads to success.  When it comes to the world of virtualized computing, our attitude has been no different.   Reliability and cost were the early inhibiting factors to adopting this technology.

What is virtual computing?

The concept of incorporating virtual PCs or servers in the datacenter has been around for several years.  In practice, virtual computing requires a server that is able to host one or more virtual PCs (or servers) in its memory.  For example, a very powerful physical server could be sharing files, handling network logons, and serving printers.   It could also host virtual computers which are loaded into its memory.  For example, another virtual machine might be installed to handle the company e-mail.  Yet another could host the company database or line of business application.  Another could be a plain Windows workstation for users.  The possibilities are endless, depending on how powerful the physical server is.

What are the top advantages of virtualization?

Security

In a company whose server wears a multiplicity of hats, it makes great sense to compartmentalize applications, data, etc. onto various servers, eliminating a single point of security failure for hackers.  Resources that are exposed to the Internet can lead to a serious security breach.

Portability and Availability

If a virtual server goes down, it can quickly be restored from backup to a secondary host within minutes, provided that disaster planning has taken place.  However, if a physical server breaks, it could be hours or days spent in downtime while waiting on replacement parts.  Such downtime could put a huge strain on production for any business.

Migration of legacy applications or systems

Some businesses are tied to legacy applications or systems that cannot run on new hardware or the latest server operating system.  Recently I was faced with a client whose financial package was hosted on a crusty NT4 Server that was implemented in 1998.  The client could not come up with an installation CD for their financial package, and the company that had developed their application had been bought out by another company that was demanding an exorbitant amount of money to sell them their new application that would not even import their old data.  In addition, it was discovered that their application would not run on anything but NT.  Using Microsoft’s Automated Deployment Services, Virtual Server Migration Tool, and Virtual Server, we successfully migrated their NT4 Server to a virtual server that now runs many times better than the old one, and the client doesn’t have to stay up at night worrying that their old server is going to crash.

It’s A Green Thing to Do!

Recent studies have shown that the average server consumes about $400 per year in electricity.  If the company requires four servers, that’s $1600 in electricity.  If a company were to consolidate all four servers into one physical machine hosting the other three virtual servers, the company has generated some savings, which is important in this economy.  It also is an environmentally responsible thing to do, as you are saving energy and increasing efficiency.  Finally, it will free up some spaces in your server rack.

It makes Great Financial Sense.

Most substantially, the company saves money on having to buy the hardware for three servers.  Consider this scenario:  Company A needs 4 servers for its new branch office with an expected life of 5 years.  It decides to buy 4 servers at $5,000 each for a total of $20,000.  It will cost $1,600 per year to run the servers in electrical bills, or $8,000 total at end-of-life.  After five years, Company A will have spent $28,000 in initial hardware investment and electricity, plus the labor to service the physical parts of all four machines.  On the other hand, Company B decides to buy one beefy server for $8,000.  Over 5 years, it will spend $2,000 on electricity.  At the end of that time, virtualization will have saved Company B $18,000.  This scenario clearly demonstrates the financial value of virtualizing servers. Additionally, over the life of the servers, the virtual server implementation will require less maintenance than the 4 physical servers because there are fewer potential points of failure. The decrease in labor resources required to maintain the servers could easily exceed the savings from hardware cost and power savings.

What are some concerns with virtualization?

Single point of failure

The greatest issue facing administrators of virtual servers is that if the physical server that hosts a virtual machine goes down, all the virtual machines go down, causing productivity to grind to a halt.  In order to implement virtual machines, a tested backup and failover plan must be in place.  Failing to do so could be catastrophic for the business.  On-Site recommends a copy of the virtual hard drive for each machine to be archived, plus a daily full backup (stored off-site) in case disaster strikes.

Licensing

Each virtual machine must be completely compliant with licensing.  In other words, licenses must be purchased for each virtual machine.   In addition, licensing may need to be purchased for the virtualization software.  Although expensive, virtualization software has come down in price thanks to competition in the market.  On the other hand, there are many virtualization software packages that are free.

Inadequate hardware

The hardware for a virtual server must be adequate to host all of the machines.  Extra RAM, hard drive space, and network cards must be installed on the server so that performance is not an issue.

Should I virtualize?

To virtualize or not depends upon the client’s IT needs, but as a rule of thumb, there is a great potential for savings if the client needs more than 2 or 3 servers.  The decision to virtualize in the past was hampered by licensing costs, but in recent years, VMWare has made several of its server products free, which caused Microsoft to make Virtual Server a free download.  Sun’s Virtual Box is also another free option.  Of course, free does not always mean “full-featured,” so it’s important to know that a free product will meet company needs before trying.  On-Site strives to give its clients the most bang for their buck in this economy.  Ask us today how we can help put virtualization to work for your information systems.

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