Feb 27 2013

Getting Started with Server Virtualization

Assess your hardware and storage needs to support your first virtual server rollout.

Thinking about deploying server virtualization? An operating system migration, application rollout or hardware upgrade affords companies an excellent opportunity to make the jump to virtual servers.

The stories of reducing hardware costs by 10 to 1 (or more) and reducing power and cooling consumption by 90 percent are real. What’s more, high-availability computing is affordable only with virtual servers.

But in order to enjoy those benefits, it’s likely IT organizations will need to deploy new hardware. Start planning a corporate deployment now.

Investing in Some Heavy Metal

Server virtualization platforms turn one physical server into several virtual ­instances. VMware leads the market with its vSphere product line, followed by Citrix with XenApp and VDI-in-a-Box, among other products. Then there’s ­Microsoft Hyper-V virtualization software, which is integrated into Windows Server 2012.

On the hardware side, Pentium servers that wheeze to support a dozen active ­users should be scrapped in favor of servers ­running multiple CPUs (each with multiple cores) that can accommodate hundreds of active users. All major manufacturers offer such servers. Add in dozens of gigabytes of RAM, and it’s easy to see how ­underutilized a server performing only one job will be.

The biggest change for most companies going from individual servers to virtual servers is storage. IT managers can use internal server storage to ­support multiple virtual servers. But for best results, consider separating storage from the server. Start with a network-­attached storage box. Most modern NAS appliances work with ­virtual servers right out of the box. The file-based technology can be a little complicated, but it’s still quite affordable.

There’s also the option of going up a step with a storage area network. SANs do a better job supporting multiple virtual servers than NAS appliances because SANs work on a block-level storage model. As prices come down for drives, SANs will also drop in cost, making them affordable for many small companies. SANs still cost more than NAS appliances, but the difference is minimal and justified in many cases.

Proper Planning

IT managers who are replacing several old servers with one new piece of ­hardware and a virtual OS can run everything on that system. But a company that’s consolidating 10 aging servers down to two should plan carefully for best performance. For instance, don’t place data­bases that churn out reports all night on the same hardware as the backup server, which also does most of its work at night. Examine load schedules and assign virtual servers to physical servers ­accordingly.

Most major server virtualization software makers offer free downloads for testing, along with tools to convert their competitor’s systems to their own. A test drive of any or all of the software options will work on just about any fairly recent server that’s sitting around, because a pilot project typically includes only two or three users, not 200. Most vendors offer ample training and user groups to call upon for help.

Once virtual servers are up and ­running, prepare for some confusion. ­Explaining to management and users that a single physical server now hosts email, backup, database and customer relationship management applications will lead to hearty guffaws. Perhaps IT needs more creative nomenclature.