Server Virtualization Guide for Small Business

by Drew Robb

Our quick server virtualization guide covers the basics to help you can decide if it's the right small business IT choice for your company.

Server virtualization is one of the most popular tech trends going today, and it seems as though everybody is jumping on the small business virtualization bandwagon. But does virtualization make sense for your small business?

In this small business guide to virtualization, we'll explain what virtualization is, the associated benefits and drawbacks, whether it makes financial sense, and which small businesses should go for it (or give it a pass). Finally, we'll look at how to go about implementing it.

What is Server Virtualization? 

Server virtualization is really all about gaining more from what you have. It allows companies to make one server act as five, ten or even twenty virtual servers. The need to do so has become more apparent as processors have become far more powerful in recent years.

“The increase in the power and memory capacity of today’s servers means they are often underutilized, and have excess capacity,” said Tony Parkinson, Dell's vice president of consumer, SMB enterprise solutions.

Historically, businesses used to add a new server for each new application. One server acted as a mail server, another as a central repository for office files, another for the customer database and so on. Technology from the likes of Microsoft and VMware, known as a hypervisor, enables a single server to be sub-divided to run multiple instances of operating systems and applications, which lets small business use the full power of that server. 

A hypervisor, then, is a computer program that allows multiple operating systems to share a single piece of hardware known as a host. This host, is the home of multiple virtual servers -- also known as guests, virtual machines or VMs.

A good analogy is the hard drive on a PC. Although there is only one actual drive, it can be split into several volumes, which are really virtual hard drives.

“A typical server may use 10-20 percent of its computing power and 20-30 percent of memory at any given time, the rest ends up being wasted,” said Parkinson. “Instead of utilizing 10-20 percent of your resources, you now have 65-75 percent of your resources working to make your company’s IT resources more productive and efficient.”  

The Benefits of Server Virtualization

Small businesses benefit from server virtualization by not having to buy more servers. Another plus is consolidating many physical servers onto one. This means that some small businesses can dispense with several of their existing machines and load everything onto one server -- or move from 20 physical servers down to a few. This means less time spent on maintenance and less money spent on powering multiple servers.

According to a recent survey by CDW, 25 percent of small businesses have virtualized at least some of their servers. Among small businesses that have not yet implemented server virtualization, 73 percent report they are investigating or planning to deploy the technology.

“Two-thirds of small businesses that have virtualized their server environments say doing so has significantly increased the return on investment of their IT -- but virtualization also requires new skills and knowledge to manage effectively,” said Jill Billhorn, CDW vice president of small business sales. 

“Small businesses that have virtualized say that the top drivers for their decision to do so were replacement of aging hardware [43 percent], server consolidation [36 percent], improved backup and disaster recovery [35 percent], greater efficiency of IT infrastructure [27 percent] and reduced IT operating costs [23 percent],” said Billhorn.

Simpleview Inc., is an 85-employee firm that provides software and Web-based services for marketing organizations operating in the tourism business. What drove the company towards virtualization?

“We had several clients that were requesting that their services be isolated from the others and this was going to push our need for even more space, power and cooling,” said Sean Smith, director of network operations at Simpleview. “So we really were primed for the opportunity of virtualization.”

The company has 15 primary servers and it turned them into 60 virtual servers. Smith cites benefits such as ease of server deployment, the capability to upgrade or downgrade server components -- such as memory, hard drives and processing power -- at will and needing less floor space.

Is Virtualization Right for You, and Does it Make Financial Sense?

This isn’t to say that server virtualization is for everybody. Small outfits with only a couple of servers have no need to bother with virtualization. The benefits for them are likely to minor, far outweighed by the costs of buying new gear and hiring in the talent to implement it.

Tony Parkinson of Dell sees the make-or-break point at around the five-to-seven server threshold. That's where virtualization starts to make sense, especially if a company has low, per-application server utilization rates. Certainly any company in the 10 to 15 server range will experience the benefits, he said.

However, it is important to realize that not every application is suited for virtualization.

"There could be the need for physical security or other security features or even the need for applications to be attached to specific peripherals for them to function correctly,” said Parkinson. “For these situations, the customer might be better off just buying extra hardware."

How to Begin the Virtualization Process

If virtualization makes sense for your business, there are various steps you can take to ease the transition. Dell, for instance, offers small business tools such as vStart 50, which simplifies the deployment and management of virtual servers, as well as online support.

The company also offers DPACK, the Dell Performance Analysis Collection Kit. This provides a simulation of how an SMB’s environment will look if consolidated by virtualization. This analysis is then used to determine the level of performance a company needs to maintain and the resources to accomplish that goal.

“These tools let IT generalists easily operate and manage their physical and virtual environments,” said Parkinson. “Our experience shows that customers should start out small with one or two applications, and build from there.”

Sean Smith at Simpleview concurs. He began with one Web server and expanded from there. His advice is simple. “Read the documentation,” he said. “VMware has a huge library of knowledge -- use it, and research it.”

Small Business Virtualization Roadmap

CDW, too, offers helps for SMBs embarking upon this journey. “For most small businesses, the road to virtualized IT requires careful planning,” said Jill Billhorn.  “Our virtualization solution architects believe that a thorough system assessment at the outset is the most important step.” 

 Similar to the Dell approach, it identifies compatibility issues using what it calls the CDW Small Business Virtualization Roadmap. It is organized according to the five steps in server virtualization deployment:  system assessment, staff assessment, management assessment, execution and measuring success.  It also includes advice gathered from other small business owners.

“There are resources available to provide low-cost or no-cost training for IT staff, and to address concerns with technical knowledge and support requirements,” said Billhorn. “Planned and executed well, virtualization can create great opportunities for small businesses.”

Drew Robb is a Los Angeles-based freelancer specializing in technology and engineering. Originally from Scotland, he graduated with a degree in geology from Glasgow's Strathclyde University. In recent years he has authored hundreds of articles as well as the book, Server Disk Management by CRC Press.

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This article was originally published on Wednesday Oct 12th 2011
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