Is Server Virtualization Right for You? 10 Ways to Decide

by Drew Robb

Think that server virtualization might help your business improve efficiency and reduce costs? Great, but how do you know it's the right path for your SMB? Our 10 tips will help you sort it out.

Server virtualization has been with us in Windows computing for about 10 years. During that time, many small businesses have embraced the technology to get more bang for their server buck and also to improve storage efficiency. In some cases the value proposition that server virtualization offers small business owners is a no-brainer. But for other SMBs, it might not be advisable.

According to a recent survey by CDW, 25 percent of small businesses use server virtualization today. Those businesses that employ server virtualization have done so on an average of 33 percent of their servers. Of those that haven’t gone virtual yet, 73 percent say they are investigating or planning to implement the technology.

But is it the right thing to do?

1. When to Skip Server Virtualization

Some small businesses don’t have an IT person on the payroll, or if they do, that person deals with everyday tasks such as security, desktop management and maintaining the servers. Such personnel are often ill-equipped to deal with the technological sophistication that virtualization demands.

Therefore, if you don’t have competent, available small business IT resources, aren’t willing to hire someone in-house or don’t have the budget to outsource the activity, you should pass on virtualization. It will create more headaches than it solves.

 “Most SMBs with less than 100 personnel will not even consider virtualization, since they will not have an appropriate technical resource,” said Bill Roth, vice president of marketing at Nexenta. “Core issues, like simply having a unified email system, often take up IT time for small businesses.”

2. Virtualize if IT is Part of your Core Competence

However, there are plenty of smaller companies where technology is a core competence. They bring value to their respective fields by being on the leading edge. They typically have lots of servers, require abundant storage and have a payroll replete with skilled IT veterans. In such a firm, virtualization is sure to add value.

“If the technical skills exist, using virtualization for core infrastructures is a no-brainer,” said Roth. “Virtualization is in broad use in these companies as a way to cut down on capital expense related to technology development.”

3. Busy Servers or Not So Much?

Greg Schulz, an analyst with StorageIO Group, said that if you currently have several servers taking up floor, rack, shelf or counter space that are not very busy, yet dedicated to particular applications, they may be ripe for virtualization. Your small business servers may be ripe for virtualization if:

  • They're taking up floor, rack, shelf, or counter space
  • They're dedicated to particular applications
  • They aren’t very busy

And if your server equipment is aging, virtualization combined with an upgrade to more modern servers might result in significant server consolidation, e.g, far fewer servers, lower power and cooling bills, and a lot of freed-up floor space.

“Keep in mind that server virtualization can reduce the number of physical servers that you need,” said Schulz.

4. Sensitive Applications

It is important to note that not all applications do well in virtual environments. Some critical or sensitive applications require a lot of processor or memory resources, and you don’t want them ever sharing those resources with other virtual servers. A standalone, specialized server for security is one example.

“I often hear about applications such as database or other performance-sensitive ones not being able to be virtualized,” said Schulz.

Find out about your applications performance needs before virtualizing them. And test in advance in any case.

5. Shared Storage, Yes: Virtual Storage, Maybe Not

There is a lot of hype out there about storage virtualization. However, all but the more -savvy small businesses can probably do without it. The big thing for some small businesses, though, is having centralized storage that is shared between users. That can mean a storage server or other type of storage that is accessed over the network. But it doesn’t have to be virtual.

“Some people will tell you that virtual servers must have virtual storage, however those themes usually come from vendors or their supporters whose livelihoods are tied to virtual storage,” said Schulz.

“I would put more emphasis on finding a storage solution that meets your main objectives addressing performance, availability and data protection, capacity, energy and economics along with other required features within your budget," Schulz added.

6. Speed of Deployment

Some organizations need to be able to provision servers rapidly. In some cases, failure to do so is a distinct competitive disadvantage. If that’s the case in your business, virtualization is a must. Ordering a physical server, connecting it on the floor, adding the applications etc. takes days if not weeks. But once a virtual framework is in place, it can be done in no time at all.

“In a virtualized environment, you can dynamically allocate resources on demand, so you can bring up a server in a matter of minutes,” said Chris Giroux, a virtualization specialist at CDW.

7. Take a Server Virtualization Test Drive

Before making a big decision to go all virtual, it might be wise to try out virtualization on a small scale. Roth suggested buying an inexpensive tool such as VMware Workstation, which costs around $199, and is a good way for IT staff to get to know virtualization. It also establishes a good foundation for a simple virtualization infrastructure.

“VMware Workstation is an easy way to try out virtualization and see value early,” said Roth. “It is available for a 30 day trial, and it can show immediate value.”

8. A Virtualization Study Hall

Don’t be afraid to study up on virtualization before implementing anything. A good place to start is Virtualization for Dummies. It provides a basic understanding of virtualization and what it can do for you. That knowledge will help you decide whether to go ahead or not.

9. Don’t Buy In to Server Virtualization Hype

Probably the worse reason to go virtual is because you got caught up in the buzz of it all. This happened in the nineties when most small businesses felt obliged to get on the Web. That resulted in millions of websites that were costly at the time and of limited value. Back then, some businesses really did need to be online, but many could have waited a year or two.

There is so much hype around virtualization today that it would be easy for some businesses to rush headlong into it without thinking. Don’t do it!

“A sure sign that you don’t need to virtualize is if you are doing it just for the sake of using a new technique, technology or tool, said Schulz. “Take a step back and ask if you want to virtualize a server or if you need to. That goes in hand with assessing the costs versus the benefits and risk of not doing so.”

10. Get Help from a Reputable Vendor

Although server virtualization can be quite complicated, the good news is that vendors are making it much easier to deploy virtualized servers. Solution bundles include servers and storage and pre-installed virtual servers for turnkey operation.

“Some of these solutions are targeted for smaller SMBs making for very rapid and easy acquisition, installation and on-going support, especially when you do not have a resident super geek in-house to take care of the technology, or if you prefer to focus on running and supporting the business vs. investing in science projects,” said Schulz.

CDW, for example, offers a free server virtualization preparedness self-assessment tool (pdf doc) for small businesses to see how ready they are for virtualization.

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 Monday Jul 23rd 2012
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