Mark Nelson
IT Manager
Barrett Firearms Manufacturing
Feb 19 2010

A Virtual Secret

How will you know when it's time to join the virtualization club?

I have a secret: I’ve been moving my company’s applications over to virtual servers. When I first looked into virtualization last winter, my main concern was that users wouldn’t embrace the new technology. But after the better part of a year, they don’t even know we’ve done it.

For my company, Barrett Firearms Manufacturing, based in Murfreesboro, Tenn., it makes perfect sense. Why run six applications on six physical servers, each operating at 20 to 30 percent capacity, when I could virtualize six servers on one physical server and use 80 to 90 percent of its capacity?

With hardware and maintenance costs slashed by half or more, heating and cooling costs decreased, and redundancy and scalability increased — all for an initial capital outlay of a few servers and a storage area network — there wasn’t any question, as far as I could see. And because we haven’t had any network downtime or user complaints, I count it among the success stories.

But how do you know if virtualization is right for you? And what are the questions you need to ask if you decide to move in that direction? There are a few points that have become pretty clear to me in the course of the past year.

First, how big is your company, and how many applications do you run? If you’re a small operation with, say, only 10 servers, virtualization might make sense on a small scale. For large companies with more than 50 servers, it’s almost a no-brainer.

You can shrink your server costs and save dramatically on heating, cooling and maintenance. But small organizations with few applications might do better with a solution such as cloud computing: servers and applications hosted elsewhere over the Internet. Some small businesses, such as software development firms, might benefit from workstation virtualization because it would allow developers to create several testing environments without needing multiple servers.

You also want to make sure you have people in-house who have experience with virtualization and understand its fundamentals. You’ll need such people on your staff to plan and implement the technology because you want to do it right the first time — not crash and burn halfway through.

Know how your architecture will be laid out before you virtualize. Ask yourself: Which machines could most logically share loads? Which applications could be moved to virtual servers?

Ask yourself: Which machines could most logically share loads? Which applications could be moved to virtual servers?

Don’t forget about storage. Although virtualized disk arrays are feasible, they can become complex. Instead, look into a centralized solution, such as a storage area network. After you have storage established, it’s easier to backup and manage your data.

Another factor to consider is the challenge of migrating data. You want to be sure you bring over your applications properly. If your hosted applications go down, employees won’t be able to work, the company will lose money and virtualization will get the blame. Set clear targets: What would deliver the most business benefit? Then determine your design plan and milestones for rolling out the technology.

We’re still phasing in our virtual infrastructure. Like I said, my goal from the outset was to keep the user experience positive, so we’ve been introducing virtual servers slowly. We test them, then gradually bring over important users and groups to the virtualized side.

I’ve been focusing first on smaller, well-tested applications instead of read/write-intensive applications such as a database or an ERP system. Those can easily create bottlenecks; if that happens, you could lose management support for the project.

Mark Nelson is the IT manager at Barrett Firearms Manufacturing in Murfreesboro, Tenn.