Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Virtualization in Small Companies

The news and media have been chock full the term Virtualization for over the past year and very heavily so since 2008. There are various offerings from several prominent vendors and a new option seems to pop up every few weeks. From a small company point of view these offerings appear catered to larger business. After all many companies out there don't have hundreds, let alone tens of servers - and what's a 'SAN' anyway.

I'm not sale rep / associated with a sales rep from any of the virtualization solution companies. I will however say there are very compelling reasons to use the technology, even in the smallest of environments. Akin to this - many of the 'beginner' virtualization solutions are free to no cost and as such can not be used as an excuse to avoid the technology. In fact, the use of virtualization in companies with only a few systems can be very compelling for some of the following reasons.

1) Hardware Independance. When you only have a few servers and suffer an equipment failure, recovering a hardware dependant system is a nightmare and a huge prioirity. VM's are run against a virtual BIOS/hardware that is more or less identical between host virtual server systems. This means a virtualized system can be restored to another host with little to zero hardware / driver issues and be off and running fast - priceless!

2) Hardware Cost Savings. Starting with 2 physcial systems consolidated to one, hardware savings are acheived. For the sake of having a backup host this isn't the best idea but the savings concept is key. Virtualizing only a handful of systems eases the selection of equipment. A modest system by today's standards can run a handful of virtual servers without worrying about having a high performance SAN or similar storage / network environment.

3) Return on equipment investment. Every business purchase is an investment, and getting the most value from each dollar spent is a big factor in buying decisions. Consider 4 servers, each costing 2 to 3 thousand dollars each. This situation presents a total investment of 8 to 12 thousand dollars and lots of computational power generally sitting 85% idle, with 4 sources of heat, space and power consumption. Virtualize those 4 systems to one 4 to 6 thousand dollar server saving thousands up front with one source of heat, power use, and noise. Or conservatively to two 4 thousand dollar servers still spending the same or less on equipment but halving the noise, power use, and heat dissipation and still reaping all the other benefites mention here.

4) Testing. Using virtualization opens the doors to smaller shops where it isn't feasable to have equipment dedicated for testing. A modest desktop with enough memory can run a handful of VM's for configuration testing purposes.

5) All the usual suspects: Less equipment space, less electricity, less heat produced, less noise, longer battery backup runtime, etc.

All this being said there are of course drawbacks. Virtualization brings along with it new concepts in system management that must be understood. Administrators must generally have a strong understanding of system resources to maintain an effective virtual environment: system memory, disk IO, networking. For smaller shops, putting many VM's on one host creates a "Many eggs in one basket" situation. Backups - there are additional backup options avaialbe to VM's that need to be understood. Certain applications do run better on dedicated physical systems versus the virtualization environment a small shop could support.

All in all virtualization is great. Even utilizing the free solutions available, great efficiences can be acheived compared to 'old school' one system to one physcial computer. You don't have to be a 'big' shop or invest thousands to reap the many benefits of virtualization!

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