Can you have real success with a virtual solution?

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Virtualization can harness your servers’ processing power so you can do more with less hardware.

I have been accused of having a virtual social life, virtual intelligence, and even a virtual girlfriend (for the record, Vinyl Vicky was real), but a virtual solution from which I’ve seen tangible benefits is the virtualization of the server environment at our company.
Virtualization has strong benefits, and whether your business has two or 2,000 servers, it is an option you may want to consider.

At its most basic, virtualization is the implementation of an additional software layer that allows operating systems and applications to reside on many different hardware devices. The key benefits of virtualization are enhanced redundancy and significant improvements in processing speed. By sharing hardware resources among several software systems, you will also be able to maintain (or reduce) your current number of hardware devices and subsequently increase your hardware footprint at a far slower pace.  

As with any software solution, multiple vendors will try to sell you on the virtues of their products — so make sure you do your homework. VMware was essentially the first to market and, in my humble opinion, should be a good starting point if you want to research this option. Because it is the “granddaddy” of the market, many competing products have been created to be compatible with and functionally similar to VMware.

Virtualization is one of those solutions that has no significant downside other than the costs and resources to implement it. To demonstrate its key benefit, let’s use a simple example in which your company has just two servers, each running one application. One server is running your accounting software; the other, your payroll software.

If the server with your payroll application has a catastrophic failure, and there is a delay in paying your staff, you may quickly find a lack of staff incentive to come into work to fix the issue. With virtualization, you would have two servers, and the two applications across both. So, if one server goes down, the other would take over and run the payroll and accounting applications. (Note: I didn’t use the accounting application going down in the example, because the accountants would probably just keep coming into work, regardless.)

{advertisement} Virtualization isn’t limited to hardware in the same physical location. Once you’ve enabled it, you can share resources across the country. This adds a second level of redundancy, as any kind of disruption or natural disaster that inhibits some devices can be mitigated by recovery at your second location. Thus, if you don’t have a disaster recovery strategy, virtualization can be a good start to one.

In many data centres today, servers run only at 10 to 15 per cent of total processing capacity. That means you likely have devices that are working about as hard as my brother-in-law. With as much as 85 to 90 per cent of your processor power going unused, you are paying for a service that, frankly, you are not getting. Because virtualization enables a single piece of hardware to support multiple systems, your servers can raise their processor utilization rates up to the 70 to 80 per cent range, enabling much more efficient use of your assets.  

No solution is perfect; I recommend you review the following situations that can impede a successful implementation of virtualization. First, if the processing power of a particular unit is subjected to very high demands, you may want to reconsider it for virtualization. Because virtualization basically divides up a server’s processing power, including hardware that is highly used could slow down other processes. Also, be careful not to put too many virtual servers on one piece of hardware — this can create significant lags in processing. Finally, be careful if you are trying to implement the solution across hardware with different manufacturers’ processors, as this can create problems.

This discussion around virtualization is not just a theoretical one. My company initiated a significant project that has seen measurable benefits. We were even recognized by BC Hydro for the amount of power we were able to conserve. What follows is a high-level summary of what we did and the benefits achieved.  

A few years ago, we recognized that because of a massive security project getting under way, the number of servers in our environment was about to increase significantly. When we reviewed the cost of acquisition of more hardware, storage facility costs, power costs, and the staff to manage it, we felt that this was an excellent time to evaluate whether virtualization was for us. At the time, we had about 250 physical servers running on the Windows operating system. We determined that the security project would likely require our current number of servers to double. Instead of spending significant time and money to acquire, configure, store, and manage these additions, we opted for virtualization of the environment so that current state and future growth could be virtualized. In some ways, the solution was a no-brainer. Doubling your hardware environment in that short a period is about as effective as two drunks coming home at 2 a.m. and trying to be quiet.

The effort was not small; it took about a year and a half, but the results are impressive. We now have 500 virtual servers running on only 100 physical hardware devices. That is a 150 devices fewer than what we had when we started, and 400 fewer than if we had just added more hardware.

Acquiring the virtualization hardware and training staff to use it was not cheap, but the benefits of having fewer staff manage the equipment and a far smaller storage facility to store the 100 servers (along with the reduced costs of powering and temperature regulation of the facility) has been a major success for us. And with energy cost savings at about $35,000 a year, it is safe to say we have no regrets.

If you have only a small number of servers in your area and an absence of expansion plans, the costs of software and the effects of change on your environment may not be worth the switch, but if you have a lot of hardware and plans to expand it, you may virtually have no other choice.

Doug Caton is a Victoria IT manager.