Remote office solutions for high availability and fault tolerance

When it comes to high availability and fault tolerance, remote office solutions may differ from what you're used to at the main branch. But they can still be effective.

Now that we've discussed remote office solutions for a server consolidation project, let's review some advanced virtualization features in these environments.

In this tip, you'll learn how virtualization can improve remote management and business continuity in remote offices. But first, recognize that when it comes to remote office solutions, you can achieve many of the benefits of larger virtualization deployments, but in a different way than you're used to.

Remote office solutions for management
Remote management of branch office servers can be problematic. Remote Desktop Protocol, Virtual Network Computing and even Secure Shell access are available, but what if something goes wrong with the network on a particular virtual machine (VM)?

I have been on the other end of a WAN line, waiting for a server to ping, and had to travel to the main site -- only to find that the server was running a time-consuming Chkdsk command (to check the file system status and fix errors) or that a configuration change had been made on the server now displaying an error message.

With virtual servers, you have direct console access to a VM in case of a problem, which eliminates this hassle. For physical hosts, there are console-level remote management solutions and other products from hardware vendors, but these technologies are not always implemented at branch offices and can be cost-prohibitive. By virtualizing branch servers and reducing the overall number of physical servers, you can purchase such technologies just for the host(s).

Remote office solutions for business continuity
VMware Inc.'s VMotion, Microsoft's Live Migration and other high-availability features are common in large organizations. But for a branch office, their hardware requirements can be too high.

Luckily, less expensive remote office solutions can meet your business continuity needs. Start by using duplicate hardware as a cold standby (a secondary system in place when your primary fails). If your host servers have hot-swappable disks, recovering from a hardware failure is as simple as pulling the disks, placing them in cold standby and starting the new server.

Granted, some downtime is associated with such manual processes, but the cost of alternatives can be prohibitive. Still, do not go the cheap route. I commonly recommend redundant power supplies, RAID hot-swappable disks and multiple network interface cards for branch office servers.

Fault tolerance also includes backups. If you use Microsoft System Center Data Protection Manager or another product that can perform host-level backups, you can restore failed branch office servers remotely -- and much more quickly. You no longer have to build up another OS on other hardware. Instead, you can restore virtual hard disk files from the comfort of the main office and have the complete server up and running quickly.

Windows Server Backup and the Diskshadow utility are two simple, free technologies for Hyper-V host-based backups that work great in branch offices.

Take time to consider the business objectives of your remote office solutions and architect your infrastructure accordingly. The outcome may not include all the sexy new hardware and features, but when it comes to server virtualization's core goals -- reducing cost and complexity while improving management and security -- your deployment can still be successful.

Send me an email and tell me about server virtualization in your branch offices.

About the expert
Rob McShinsky is a senior systems engineer at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center in Lebanon, N.H., and has more than 12 years of experience. Since 2004 he has focused on server virtualization.. He has been closely involved with Microsoft as an early adopter of Hyper-V and System Center Virtual Machine Manager 2008, as well as a customer reference. In addition, he blogs at VirtuallyAware.com, writing tips and documenting experiences with various virtualization products.


This was first published in May 2010

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