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When people talk about virtualization, they often reference how it supports Fortune 500 companies . These companies have a large IT staff supporting massive data centers that run complex software helping to support critical functions. The technology is often regarded as expensive and unnecessary for many businesses outside of large enterprises. But, the truth is, even a small office can take advantage of virtualization.
Why do small businesses need virtualization?
Virtualization is the ability to take one hardware platform and run multiple operating systems. In large environments, it becomes possible to consolidate dozens of servers onto a single powerful hardware platform. A small to medium-sized business (SMB) may only have a few servers in a closet or wiring room. Virtualizing these servers is less about consolidation and more about flexibility and growth.
Often times the decision to upgrade an application in an SMB is driven by hardware costs, the amount of time needed and the complexity of the upgrade. These costs in time and dollars can become the primary driver of the project instead of the application features and functionality. The adtantage of virtualization is that it allows the SMB to have additional resources on standby, allowing it to assign those resources as needed. This flexibility allows for growth without a large budget. In fact, SMBs can perform an upgrade without bringing down the existing production environment, something normally reserved for the big guys. So now that we know virtualization can have a positive impact, let's figure out how we can make it happen.
How can I afford virtualization?
Virtualization requires two pieces: hardware and software licenses. These alone can come to tens of thousands of dollars, but there are a few options that can help an SMB take advantage of virtuaqlizaiton on a small budget.
- Hardware: Rack, tower and blade servers are the normal entry point for virtualization due to the amount of resources and reliability, but the cost and power requirements do not always make them the best choice for SMB markets. Several vendors have been starting to release mini-tower servers designed for the SMB market and HP recently released a new microserver that raises the bar even higher in the small form-factor server market. These small form factor servers support dual core CPUs and up to 16 GB of memory in a low power frame. They can support four hard drives with built in support for some RAID levels. With an additional RAID controller, you can gain even more RAID features and they come with basic remote administration functions with the ability to upgrade to full remote control access. While they do not have all of the features of a traditional server built-in, many of the features can be added a la-cart, giving SMBs a low cost platform with the option to grow.
- Software: The premier virtualization vendor is VMware. While Microsoft and others exist in this market, VMware has established itself as the market leader with its reliability and performance. Unfortunately, that reliability also comes with a hefty price tag. What many people don’t know is the VMware hypervisor is free with no limitations. Yes, that is right, you can create a VMware ESXi host with as much memory and CPUs as you would like.
While you get the same hypervisor as the Fortune 500 companies, you do not get all of the same management features. You can manage VMs with a friendly Web interface, but you will not have access to advanced features such as vMotion, High Availability and centralized management. The SMB can get the basic funtions they need and still have the ability to grow into these features as the business grows with VMware Essentials Kit. This product, designed for the SMB, includes centralized management and support options and allows the SMB to start with VMware without having to invest the money in software until they are ready.
How do I support virtualizaiton?
VMware and other hypervisor vendors have excellent technical support options if you have a support contract or are willing to pay per incident. Even with the VMware Essentials editions, if you choose to pay per incident it can start at a few hundred dollars and grow into several thousands of dollars very quickly for production-level support. However, all of the major vendors have free community support. This can be very helpful, but of course, but can leave you with an agonizing wait when you need an answer. VMware also has the VMware User Group community of users that always seem ready to help, but again this is not a guarantee of exact or timely support.
Third-party VARs may offer technical support at prices less than the traditional vendor support, but if they are not able to resolve the issue it can cost you more if you end up having to escalate the problem to a vendor's technical support. Training can help to minimize some of these risks, and more hypervisor vendors are offering free quality training online. This free training does not replace the more comprehensive training classes offered by vendors, but it also does not cost $3,000 to $4,000 per class.
Virtualization in the SMB has tremendous benefits, but it does come with some risk. The support aspect is the one of the biggest concerns. Even with this grey area, the advantage of virtualization can far outweigh the risk, and as the user communities continue to grow and the products continue to increase in stability and usability, the support aspect is becoming less of a concern for the SMB.