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Easing the Challenge of Virtualization for SMBs

By: Matt Sarrel

Many enterprises are reaping the benefits of virtualization, e.g. a flexible infrastructure that can significantly simplify daily operations, reduced risk and cost and higher value and greater ROI over the old single app/ single server mentality. However, SMBs have been a bit slow on the uptake of virtualization technologies for a number of reasons.

Cost Effective Virtualization

When SMB IT departments launch server or desktop virtualization projects, they are often surprised to discover that the anticipated savings were consumed by a heavy up-front investment in software, hardware, training, and administration overhead.  While large enterprise IT shops can go back to the CFO and ask for another 10% to help support the project, this would be akin to signing one’s own death warrant in today’s cash-strapped SMB environment.

However, virtualization can reduce costs related to underutilized physical servers.  Many SMBs purchase high-capacity servers with the plan that use will grow to fit the resources – “if our application uses 5% of resources today then we'll be good for a few years as it grows to 50%.”  But, this means that you're overspending by paying for tomorrow's resources today (and we know technology resources get cheaper over time so this spare capacity is basically wasted.)  Instead, running a number of virtual machines on a single physical machine allows IT departments to use that spare capacity. Running multiple virtual machines on a single physical machine also consolidates the physical server footprint in the datacenter.  Fewer physical servers equal less rack space, energy consumed and heat produced, plus the accompanying reduction in administration costs.

In addition, virtualization provides a great deal of flexibility by divorcing the OS/applications from the server hardware.  You can add or remove resources from the virtual machine without shutting down the physical server and disassembling it.  Remember the agony of the last time you had a business critical application jeopardized by failing hardware?  In a virtualized environment the application's virtual machine could simply be pushed to different hardware.  This flexibility facilitates more efficient scaling of server environments as business needs grow. 

Minimizing Risk

Many SMBs see risk in virtualization.  Whereas slow applications on physical servers can usually be isolated to a single server or application, this is far more difficult in the virtual world.  “Which piece of which app is running on which virtual server on which physical server” can be a daunting question in an environment prone to virtual sprawl.  Virtualization allows for consolidation of network infrastructure and storage infrastructure as well, so now troubleshooting a single app could require troubleshooting every piece of virtual and physical equipment in a datacenter.  A lot of businesses may not be willing to tolerate the disruption of existing services in order to go virtual.

The shift from a physical infrastructure to a virtual infrastructure requires changes in conceptualization, architecture, and process.  Many SMBs have gone with the model of direct attached storage for their physical server environment.  Much to their chagrin, virtual servers and applications run best from shared storage, not from direct attached storage.  It’s a lot to ask the average small business IT guy to grapple with the added of complexity of now having to manage a shared storage infrastructure (for example, a SAN) instead of simply popping a new drive into a local drive array.

SMBs may question the need for a complex virtual environment.  Can a company running only a dozen apps truly reap the benefits of server and application consolidation on their own?  Or would this small business be better off simply moving everything into the cloud?  Why build something from scratch when you could easily leverage someone else’s infrastructure?  Few companies actually want to manage greater numbers of more complex systems, and even fewer want to shell out big bucks on a whole new infrastructure that is supposed to save them time and money.  SMB’s must weigh the cost savings might of virtualizing into the cloud versus building their own environment and then having to maintain it. 

Benefits vs. Challenges

Small businesses can reap many benefits from virtualization, but the perception that only enterprises can benefit from server consolidation and cloud architectures has kept virtualization off the radar for many SMB IT personnel.  What’s worse, there’s still a great deal of perceived uncertainty regarding the application and value of virtualization on the part of IT.  Capacity planning is no longer merely a matter of 1 app = 1 machine, and while this is more efficient it is also more complex. 

SMB IT personnel have found, up front planning is difficult to achieve in an environment where you’re constantly putting out fires.  Even though virtualization is intended to simplify IT management, deploying a virtual infrastructure can be an arduous task, especially if you’ve never done it before. 

VMware Go Can Help

Fortunately, there’s actually a tool out there that can make at least the deployment and management of virtualized machines significantly easier. 

The VMware Go vSphere Hypervisor allows you to create virtual machines by leveraging the configuration of an existing physical server using the built in VMware P2V converter tool. The vSphere Hypervisor can also install a pre-packaged, reliable and secure virtual appliance that is immediately ready to run in production. 

After creating the virtual machines, VMware Go can help you monitor the VM’s for performance and resource utilization through a straightforward web interface.  While there’s a lot to consider and get done when virtualizing in an SMB (cost, scalability, risk), once you decide to go virtual, VMware Go can definitely simplify the initial setup and ongoing management of your new environment.