Virtualization Enters the SMB World

Virtualization Enters the SMB World

February 7, 2008

Blossoming Trend

There is no doubt that virtualization is catching on like wildfire. Just about every large and midsize firm is already doing it extensively, and now it is percolating down into the small business strata.

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"Virtualization is exploding in popularity," said Jim Smith, a performance specialist at TeamQuest Corp. "Virtual machine deployments are expected to grow from 540,000 in 2006 to more than four million 2009."

He cautions, though that although the benefits are widely advertised, the complexities have not been comprehensively discussed. VMs add a whole new layer of administration to IT. If you're already well schooled in IT complexity, fine. But for companies still coming to terms with internal networking or hooking up servers to storage arrays, virtualization is going to mean the addition of a highly paid specialist into the fold. So it's by no means a must-have technology for many smaller organizations.

Smith makes the point that a good reason to use virtualization is to improve the utilization rate of hardware — i.e., how much processing power your server uses to run the application. Many companies, for example, buy a server for every application they run. But you can end up with dozens of servers on the floor, most of which are very poorly utilized.

What this adds up to is that you have a hefty power and cooling bill but aren't getting much return on the money. Low utilization means computers aren't being used to their limits, and that represents an awful lot of inefficiency.

"When people look, they are often shocked to find that many servers are running at utilization levels of less than 12 percent," said Smith.  "Since 9/11, however, the tide has been turning and the ongoing trend is to maximize utilization rates. And server virtualization certainly plays a big part in solving this problem."

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This brings many other advantages to the IT world. Servers can now be deployed faster. Instead of hours or days, it can be done with a virtual machine within the hour. Other benefits include a reduction in the amount of space required for computers. That in turn leads to lower costs for ventilation, electricity and cooling.

Each vendor, of course, advocates its own virtualization schemes, and the various approaches can be quite confusing. For the purposes of this article, we will discuss only the options that small businesses would likely encounter.

VMware is the darling of the marketplace. Just about every company of any size engages some form of VMware deployment. VMware ESX Server is software-based virtualization solution that facilitates hardware sharing. It makes it possible to have a powerful processor shared by multiple virtual machines behaving as though they were completely separate servers.

Microsoft Windows Virtual Server
Windows Virtual Server (WVS) is also software-based, and like VMware, it lets you share hardware resources such as memory and CPUs.

Let's move this over into one possible scenario. HP offers a product for small businesses named the HP c3000 (also known by its nickname, Shorty). This is, in essence, just a chassis or enclosure to hold blade servers (thin, streamlined servers).

You can buy a c3000 enclosure for with power supplies, fans and management software for less than $5,000. It can hold two-to-eight server blades, which range between $2,100 and $5,000 each, depending on processor, memory and configuration. There are some additional costs for storage and networking. Depending on the mix of devices, a Shorty enclosure may cost between $7,000 and $45,000.

This hardware from HP supports VMware, WVS and other virtualization solutions. By consolidating all of IT into a couple of these boxes, it is possible to establish a powerful virtual world composed of scores of virtual servers. Now set up another such box at a remote location and disaster recovery and you simplify backup tremendously. 

"We have customers using the c3000 for virtualization projects," said Barry Sinclair, product manager for HP c3000. "One small business customer has four enclosures (two in each of two sites in a virtualized environment, and it is handling disaster recovery scenarios between sites."

Virtualization in the Real World

Let's end by looking at how one small business benefits from virtualization. The Los Angeles Universal Preschool (LAUP) is non-profit with a goal to make voluntary, high-quality preschool available to every four year old in Los Angeles County. It has several physical servers running VMware. Each physical server represents 15 to 20 virtual machines. 

"The cost of purchasing physical servers would have easily run over $100,000," said Robert Lazo, director of systems and operations at LAUP. "VMware technology allowed us to avoid that expense."

Other benefits reported by Lazo include being able to set up a new server in less than five minutes. Such a task would have taken many hours previously.

LAUP, however, has a well-established IT staff of seven to service 150 employees. And that's probably the make-break point of virtualization — it's great if you have clued-in people who are coping with IT headaches on a daily basis. But if your business is coping fine without high-level computing expertise, it's probably safe to give virtualization a pass.

This article was originally published on Small Business Computing.