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As IT budgets decline, old servers called to virtualization duty

In the economic downturn, some IT managers have turned to their existing older servers for VMware virtualization.

If server vendors have embraced virtualization over the years, it's because the technology tended to be deployed alongside brand-new, high-end boxes. But now that IT budgets are in decline, are IT professionals forsaking new hardware purchases and installing virtualization software on servers they already own?

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Yes and no.

"Anecdotally, we're hearing more interest from the part of our customers to virtualize on existing systems," said Bogomil Balkansky, VMware's vice president of product marketing, server business unit. "People are extending the useful life of their hardware beyond the typical three-year depreciation cycle."

But repurposed older servers aren't typically sent into production, said Rich Brambley, a senior infrastructure consultant at Softchoice Optimus Solutions, a Gold status VMware Authorized Consultant partner in Norcross, Ga., and a blogger at VM/ETC."I am seeing the repurposing of hardware purchased in the last three years as recovery site virtualization hosts, for example. In some cases they are used as development environments."

But for the most part, people doing serious server consolidation projects still opt for new hardware, Brambley said. "With virtualization assist in CPUs, the 64 bit requirements of the latest hypervisors, and the latest versions of applications like Exchange 2007, companies are still buying new server hardware for primary virtual infrastructure."

But "new" doesn't necessarily mean top-of-the-line anymore. Even when hardware purchases are unavoidable, customers are trying to cut corners by buying lower-cost products from second-tier vendors, said Francis Poeta, the president of P & M Computers Inc., a solutions provider in Cliffside Park, N.J.

Old servers: Doing the math
IT managers that have tried to stretch their budget dollars by virtualizing on older hardware need to think long and hard about whether it makes sense, said a system administrator that has deployed VMware ESX on older systems.

People doing serious server consolidation projects still opt for new hardware.
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The first thing to determine is whether installing virtualization on older hardware actually saves money. Today's servers are equipped with quad- and six-core CPUs that can deliver much greater consolidation ratios that single- or dual-core models, he said. "VI3 [VMware Infrastructure 3] is licensed per socket, so you're paying the same cost for older CPUs but you're getting less bang for your buck."

But if the budget for new hardware simply isn't there, consider the age of a server and how much life it has left in it. When identifying a candidate for a virtualization host, identify a box that is three years or younger and has "had a relatively low runtime," the systems administrator said.

Also consider hardware compatibility. "VMware's compatibility matrix is very specific. You can't just put any old device in there." Further, don't be surprised if new virtualization management features such as Storage VMotion don't support older network interface cards and host bus adapters. And because VMware doesn't always support all systems with each release, IT managers may have to go back a couple of generations and install an older version of ESX.

Both Citrix Systems' XenServer and Windows Hyper-V platforms require 64-bit processor hardware with virtualization extensions, which also limits system administrators as far as the age of the systems they can use.

That's not to say system administrators shouldn't virtualize on older boxes, just that they need to be aware of the pitfalls, the system administrator said. "A lot of times, the decision isn't yours to make. You've got to work with what you've got."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Alex Barrett, News Director or Colin Steele, Site Editor. And check out our Server Virtualization blog.

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