Virtualization: Is Your Business Ready for It?


Virtualization: Is Your Business Ready for It?

One CM explains that, despite a few challenges, virtualization 
is “potentially huge in its impact on IT efficiency.” 

In IT, virtualization—the act of creating a virtual (rather than actual) version of computer hardware platforms, operating systems, storage devices or computer network resources—has rapidly become an integral part of the server infrastructure for organizations both large and small. While you might think your company is too small for virtualization, it may be time to reconsider and explore the potential cost savings related to computer hardware, power usage, cooling costs and productivity that virtualization offers. Jason Hikel of Shelter Systems Limited and John Holland of Clearspan Components Inc. recently reflected on their experiences with virtualization. 

“For me, server virtualization can be summed up in three words: peace of mind. I am able to worry less about catastrophic situations knowing that my organization’s server infrastructure is protected on multiple levels with the features and functions my chosen virtualization platform provides,” said Hikel.

“My chosen virtual solution also adds levels of redundancy to my infrastructure that I wanted in the past, but were too costly because those roles required separate hardware” continued Hikel. “Now, creating a failover SQL or Domain Control server is as simple as spooling up a new virtual machine (VM) and making the appropriate configuration changes.”

If that benefit description leaves you feeling a little lost, you’re not alone. “Like many things in the IT realm, it can be hard to explain the intricacies of virtualization to those outside of the department,” said Holland. The first step is not going over the details; it’s simply making a case for virtualization. “For many companies,” Holland points out, “the decision to virtualize will come down to the trust management has in the recommendation of their IT professionals.”

Getting Started

If you’re new to virtualization, it can be hard to know where to start. “Not many IT teams in the industry just happen to have a resident expert in virtualization,” said Holland. “Only after some trial and error will you really know if you have a solution that will work.”

In general, the process begins with setting up a host server, which is a physical server running multiple virtual machines, known as guests. In most cases, you’ll want to invest in redundant host servers. This will allow you to redeploy virtual machines on a backup server in the event of a hardware failure.

Depending on your virtualization platform of choice—a variety of commercial and free solutions are available including VMware, Hyper-V and XenServer—you should be able to house quite a few guest  servers on a single host. Your mileage will vary based on server load and the CPU, RAM, network capacity and storage available on the host machine.

While there are a number of places where virtualization might benefit your business, Holland suggests starting small, “I think the best strategy in virtualization is to start with just the servers. When your team feels comfortable doing backups, restores, and ‘debugging’ the virtual machines, then maybe consider other places where virtualization might be beneficial.”

Consider the Benefits  

  • Virtualized server environments make it much easier to share and allocate resources. Adjustments to the amount of memory, hard drive space, network and CPU resources on a virtual machine can all be made easily—allowing IT staff to quickly upgrade or downgrade servers based on the resources the servers within your hosting environment actually need.
  • Physical servers typically use only a small percentage of their available resources at a given time. When you combine multiple servers on one host in a virtual environment, the host can manage these resources dynamically, allocating memory and CPU cycles to servers when they need them, but leaving those resources available to other servers when they don’t. 
  • Virtualization provides flexibility when it comes to testing and deploying changes. Because a virtual machine is nothing more than a collection of files saved on a hard drive, the process of testing an upgrade or setting up a new development environment that is identical to production is greatly simplified.
  • Snapshots, which are point-in-time copies of a virtual machine, make it possible for staff to experiment with changes with significantly lower risk than making changes on a physical machine.
  • Virtualization can be a useful tool when it comes to providing access to legacy software and tools. For example, if you have software that only runs on Windows XP, you may find that it is difficult to install on a newer computer.  One way to work around the problem is to install the software on a virtual machine and make it available to staff via a remote desktop or application virtualization.
  • Upgrades and server migrations can be performed without downtime. 
  • Consolidating multiple servers into one results in reduced electricity consumption and reduced cooling costs in your server room. 

Seeing the Benefit

If your business has only one or two servers, switching to a virtual server environment may not be worth the investment. However, many small businesses are finding that the cost-to-benefit tipping point isn’t far above that. In most cases, if you are running four or more servers in your business, an investment in virtualization will pay for itself quickly.

If you’re interested in giving it a shot, there are a number of low-risk and low-cost options for getting started. With a relatively cheap physical server or even a well-provisioned desktop machine, you can set up an environment that will allow you to better understand virtualization and see for yourself what you’ve been missing. 

“Virtualization is the present and future of computing,” said Hikel, “The costs continue to be driven down, and the technology continues to get easier and easier to use. Any business looking to upgrade their server-
side infrastructure should be looking at virtualized solutions and do everything they can to not add another physical box to their system.”

About the Author: Ben Caldwell joined SBCA staff in 2010, but he’s been a web developer and technology junkie since the 90s. He has a background in information/communications technology R&D and a strong interest in emerging technologies and open source.