House of Brick Principal Architect
Every day I receive many emails advertising solutions, products, and services around massive enterprise systems like VCE Vblocks or huge Cisco UCS deployments, impressive storage arrays with SSD everywhere, and ubiquitous cloud buzzwords charging from every vendor’s mouth?
What about the small guy?
What about smaller business who simply does not need that massive of a server infrastructure? Sometimes I feel that the SMB market has been ignored by technology vendors. Therefore, I want to discuss the state of virtualization for small business, how virtualization specifically benefits businesses their size, and how these businesses can start virtualizing without a tremendous investment in technology.
The majority of the reasons to virtualize small business are similar to the reasons to virtualize any business – efficiency. Streamlining a number of processes can especially help small business ROI. Saving time can help those employees contribute to helping the business make money, not just burning time churning through the same old system management processes every day, every month, and every year.
Just consider the average hardware lifespan for a server. I usually try to retire a normal server from production duties by the end of the fourth year of active duty. Think about the amount of time it normally takes to upgrade this hardware at the end of that cycle. You have to install the operating system, one or more application servers, and then work through a migration plan for the application configuration and settings, data and integration components, test everything, then perform the cutover. This process is exhausting and usually takes weeks or even months.
Virtualization allows you to condense this entire process down to a few clicks and a few seconds. VMware vMotion and Microsoft Hyper-V’s hot migration features allow an administrator to move a virtual machine from one physical server to another – while the virtual machine is in use by your end users – with no downtime or interruption in service. It’s one of the most basic virtualization concepts, but one of the most powerful. If you consider the impact of this process’s time savings in terms of lost productivity, and therefore dollars of lost revenue, virtualizing all of your servers could possibly pay for everything over the span of a hardware lifecycle.
What about downtime and the negative impact to your business? If a physical server crashes, repairing the damage could take (at a minimum) hours – and could possibly stretch into weeks. vSphere and Hyper-V’s High Availability features detect physical server failures and restarts the downed VMs on the remaining hosts. The average amount of downtime is under four minutes.
Consider your most business-critical servers. Now consider the impact to your business if one of these is down for four hours – the bare minimum response time for a support incident from a normal hardware vendor. It can be pretty dramatic. Stretch that to eight hours. Now to 24. What about 72? Ouch. Depending on the business, 24 hours of darkness could spell the end of the business.
Now think about the same impact on the business if this unplanned outage were to stretch to just four minutes. The business might be impacted, but the odds are that it could shrug that outage off and return to business as usual.
Backups and Disaster Recovery
Planning for disasters is next. How long has it been since you tested a full system restore of a server using your current backup solution? What if a user deletes a month of historical orders dating back two years and you do not discover it until three months from now? Does your current backup solution allow you to go back in time and retrieve what you need to fix the problem?
What if you had to restore your last good full system backup to a newer server? What if the only server you can obtain in an emergency is by a different vendor with different configurations? The odds are against you on if your system restoration will actually succeed.
One of the key technical benefits of virtualization is the abstraction and separation between the hardware layer and the operating system on up to the applications that run on it. By adding this layer, you can now get underneath the virtual server and back it up in ways never dreamed of before. You can also restore it to a completely different piece of physical hardware – on site, off site, or in the public cloud – and can validate that the backup is successfully restored and operational. You can do all this without impacting the running production server.
The benefits extend well beyond this. Other technologies can replicate the changes in a virtual machine between two or more points so that a copy of your servers are always up to date, and ready to be turned on at a moment’s notice.
The final benefit that I will mention here is virtual machine snapshot technologies. Have you ever had an application or operating system upgrade that just completely trashes your system, and the amount of time taken to undo the damage and return to normal just made you want to cry?
Virtual machine snapshots allow you to take a point in time and give you the ability to ‘roll back’ the server to this point in time. Take a snapshot just before you upgrade, and roll back if the upgrade fails. It’s that simple. If things go according to plan, commit your changes and life goes on as normal.
It’s your safety net – in just a few clicks.
I usually joke with clients that everything should be virtualized, and should have been done so yesterday.
But – I’m not actually joking.
The technology to completely virtualize the datacenter is here, and more accessible than ever. The smaller the business, the more daunting the up-front costs of virtualization entry can be. However, prices are falling every quarter. Do your ROI calculations. I find that if a company with five to seven major servers can hit the break-even point at the end of one hardware lifecycle. If you are currently using end-of-life hardware in production, consider virtualization as you replace old hardware and the ROI calculations get even easier.
Extend the model as your business scales and think about the ROI beyond one hardware lifecycle. The ROI benefits become increasingly apparent. Virtualize everything and it will pay for itself in the long haul.
What about the buzzwords about ‘public cloud’? Should you send your servers off-premises or keep them in house? What about both?
It all depends on your organization’s needs. Ask yourself these questions:
- How secure must my data be? Am I subject to any regulatory compliance restrictions such as PCI or HIPAA?
- How much technical expertise do I have, in-house or contractual, to manage a virtualized infrastructure?
- How tight is your application’s SLA? Not all public cloud providers are created equal, and the guaranteed uptime numbers widely vary.
- What is my budget? CPU and memory time, disk space and speed, and network bandwidth used all add up quickly.
- What are my performance requirements of the applications that I wish to send out to the public cloud?
- Should I use the cloud as a DR target only, split my workload into partially located in the public cloud and the rest internal, or keep everything in a private cloud in your corporate umbrella?
How does a smaller organization virtualize everything? This is the magic question.
First, you should understand your current server workload operating parameters and their trends over time. Only then can you be sure you have the right balance of equipment purchased – fast enough and big enough with enough room to grow as your business grows. Avoid over-buying and spending too much up front.
Companies are making it easier to get into entry-level private-cloud virtualization technologies.
Next, consider a virtualization partner that can help guide you through the process. House of Brick has years of experience virtualizing infrastructures of all sizes, with a specialty in business-critical data systems. The process of virtualizing an environment with the least amount of interruption to the business is critical, and ensuring your success should be foremost in your virtualization initiative.
Next, think about the hardware. The virtualization partner can help you on this journey. Most vendors and VARs have hardware bundles that are ready to go! Just last week I received an email from Dell with a complete entry-level virtualization kit, certified with Microsoft Hyper-V 2012 and ready to assemble. This bundle is a great deal, and equivalent bundles with VMware vSphere Essentials Plus can also be obtained for equivalent prices.
Finally, take the plunge! The technology is here, and the cloud is the way of the future. Your business can benefit from all of the great efficiencies and savings of virtualization. Stop waiting and let’s virtualize everything!