Aug 19 2009

What You Might Not Know

Before you jump into any virtualized environment, here are a few lesser-known tips that might come in handy from companies that have already made the move.

Photo: John Lee/Aurora Select

The unknown is scary.

It was so scary for the managers at Trilliant, that nearly three years ago when Jaime Lopez, then new to his job as IT manager, suggested virtualizing servers, folks at the Smart Grid communications company near San Francisco simply said no. Supplying smart-grid services 24x7 made the move seem too risky — what if something went wrong and servers went down?

Lopez decided to get creative. Having used virtualization extensively at his previous job, Lopez says he knew it would provide the reliability and scalability required for large-scale Smart Grid projects, as well as provide the company with more creative processing options for its many small-scale pilot projects. To demonstrate its software services to utility companies, Trilliant typically maintains six to 10 pilots simultaneously, each requiring five to 10 servers for an estimated period of six months to a year.

“Virtualization is vital for customers who need to start small with a vision of scaling to millions of managed devices,” Lopez says, recalling Trilliant’s initial foray more than two years ago. “I built a VMware server — eight machines for the price of one server. Then I asked the users after a couple of weeks, ‘How do you like that virtual server?’ They were blown away.”

Trilliant’s return on investment in virtualization is approximately 2,000% over 3 years, says IT Manager Jaime Lopez. And total savings add up to $2.1 million. “People are still skeptical when you show them the ROI. We ask them to look at the numbers and challenge us because we have an answer for everything.”

Today, Trilliant runs a full-blown VMware VSphere environment, with 90 percent of its server operations virtualized. There are approximately 16 host servers supporting more than 140 virtual machines to meet the demands of the 200-employee company. “Even with my clusters — I have 24 to 30 machines per cluster — my utilization is still way down, which just goes to show how underutilized servers are generally,” Lopez notes.

Fast Forward

Is your company ready to take the virtual leap, too? If not, it probably will be soon. According to Forrester Research’s 2008–2009 report on emerging hardware, interviews with more than 2,600 IT managers in the United States and Europe found that adoption of server virtualization has reached 53 percent in small- and medium-sized businesses. And SMBs don’t plan to stop there: 74 percent say they are looking to technologies such as desktop virtualization to help them lower PC costs, too.

But what are the unknowns, and how can a company avoid them? There’s a lot of information out there to help. In fact, says Jay Wessel, vice president of technology for the Boston Celtics organization, there’s so much help available online that answers to most questions can be found with only a few mouse clicks.

Even so, there are instances that arise that leave the IT department saying, “Hmm, we didn’t think about that.” Here are five pointers that IT chiefs suggest are useful as a business begins its virtual journey.

Tip #1: Think all the way through to your backup requirements.

Lopez acknowledges that at the onset of the Trilliant virtualization effort, “the only thing that I didn’t think about were the backups.”

What is your company's main reason for implementing virtualization?

24% Easier or better manageability

18% Cost savings
17% Operating efficiencies
6% Footprint reduction
35% Have not virtualized

Source: CDW Poll of 282 BizTech readers

It didn’t cause any crippling hiccups, but when it came time to do backups, he found out the hard way that the Redwood City, Calif., company’s backup server was incompatible with VMware Consolidated Backup. “Microsoft Server 2003 only permits either iSCSI or Fibre Channel connections. It does not permit both on the same server,” he points out. “We had to buy an additional backup server for VCB.”

Tip #2: Brush up on your Unix skills.

In most small IT shops, Microsoft Windows rules. But when you begin virtualizing with VMware, IT team members will likely benefit from a Unix refresher course, suggests the Celtics’ Wessel. Many of the tools require Unix code to carry out transactions or to complete operations.

“You certainly don’t have to be a Unix jock, but there’s enough that’s different from Windows that you have to be comfortable with using Unix-based tools,” he says, especially for moving disk images around and during installation.

The 100-user NBA organization in Boston has been using virtualization for almost two years now, having installed two EMC storage area networks, one attached by Fibre Channel to two VMware hosts running ESX and a second for its massive video store.

“It took me a few days with some things and a few weeks with others to get comfortable with the tools,” Wessel says. Although he’d trained in Unix in college, it’s not something he had used regularly at work before adopting VMware. “I should have studied a little more to get ready,” Wessel says with a laugh now.

Tip #3: Pop for a storage upgrade.

For both the Boston Celtics and Trilliant, the footprint reduction that virtualization allows also pays dividends. Space is always at a premium, Trilliant’s Jaime Lopez says, so reduced power and cooling requirements add up to more savings. And, notes Jay Wessel in jest, “We’re the Celtics Green after all.”

“If you’re going to virtualize, you need to consider network-attached storage — not from a tech perspective, but because you miss so many of the benefits if you don’t,” says Cory Rau, managing director for Bullpen Tech Services of Hauppauge, N.Y. The chief benefit is the ease of migrating VMs on the fly, followed closely by the ability to automate VM movements to ensure high throughput and fail-over. “And you need high availability — that provides you the assurance you need.”

Although it might mean more of an initial investment, says Rau, “it’s still a huge cost savings” on the back end because of the reduced server requirements going forward and the immediate access to the full suite of virtualization capabilities. Bullpen Tech, which advises SMBs on technology, deployed Citrix XenServer with high availability to replace multiple servers that the six-employee company had deployed for applications and print and file services. Previously, everything ran on its own physical server, says Rau.

To justify the spending, he points to something that companies often don’t think about up front: downtime.

“With virtualization, networked storage and high availability, you avoid the cost of downtime,” Rau says. “Everybody seems to overlook the cost of downtime because it’s not easily calculable.”

Tip #4: Take care not to overprovision.

“It’s really easy to overprovision,” says David Michel, director of technology for the Charleston, S.C., law firm Turner Padget Graham & Laney.

IT can create 30 Windows servers literally in minutes, he says. That is what’s great about virtualization: the ability to meet unexpected user requests as they arise in the 250-person, five-location firm. “But do you own the licensing? Then there’s the processor load — those small servers add up. Then there may be issues with your database servers — do they know the VMs are there?” asks Michel.

He recommends setting policies for provisioning and taking care to track the VMs you have established.

Virtualization can come in especially useful for creating holding pens for legacy or infrequently used data and applications, Michel adds. “We have some older servers that we pretty much leave off in a VM and then if we need them we can tap them,” he says. “If you have room, virtualization can give you lots of access to older stuff that’s pre-virtualization and that may not have been documented or stored per policy.”

Tip #5: Remember, VMs need maintenance, too.

“It works so well and is so seamless that I get complacent,’’ says Wessel. But he cautions against being too lax about monitoring. Once, the Celtics organization was running at half speed because one of its two servers was hung up. But because its ESX deployment has full redundancy and each of its servers can take on the full load of the other, “we didn’t notice at all for nearly a day and half,” he says.

The lesson? “Don’t get too complacent,” Wessel says. “Everything needs a little maintenance now and then.”