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Bringing Virtualization Infrastructure to SMBs

A Contributed Article by Eric Courville, co-founder and COO of VM6 Software

In many ways, small-to-medium-size businesses (SMBs) aren't so different from their larger counterparts.  They do not have small-to-medium-size ambition.  They do not have small-to-medium-size work ethic.  However, SMBs do have particular technology needs that require them to seek out solutions that differ from products designed for bigger companies.  Virtualization is an important and timely example.  Like so many other technologies that have traveled the path from cutting-edge innovation to ubiquitous deployment, virtualization is now within reach for companies of almost any size.  But SMBs looking to adopt virtualization solutions must do so carefully in order to reap the greatest return on investment.

Why virtualize?

The market has promoted the values of virtualization for some time now, but the details in those discussions often refer to enterprise deployments.  The benefits for SMBs have been less publicly touted, but are no less significant. 

Cost, of course, is the primary concern for any company vigilant about its budget.  Because virtualization technologies increase the utilization of servers and storage, they allow SMBs to run their IT infrastructure more efficiently and at a lower cost.  There is also a related spending reduction in the simplified management and maintenance requirements of the virtualized environment.  Virtualization enables organizations to reduce planned downtime by relocating workloads before systems undergo maintenance or upgrades.  Migrating virtual servers and desktops between physical platforms increases the speed of provisioning without impacting users.

Another significant benefit to SMBs involves data availability and disaster recovery (DR).  Too often, smaller companies sacrifice these necessary elements due to cost concerns.  Recoverability is a must-have for SMBs, and virtualization supports more cost-effective data protection by enabling fewer systems at the DR site and supporting dissimilar hardware use.

The top three challenges SMBs face in virtualization

Despite the many benefits of virtualization, there are several challenges to adopting this technology that are particular to SMBs.  

  1. Shared storage - Virtual servers and desktops rely on shared storage to transfer the running state of workloads between physical servers. SMBs can accomplish this by replacing direct-attached disks with storage area networks (SANs) that interconnect to multiple servers.
  2. Virtualized bottlenecks are bigger - In a physical environment, storage disruptions and slowdowns are usually isolated to a single server or a single application.  That is not the case in the virtual world, where any bottleneck or single point of failure in a centralized SAN can ripple across the entire set of interconnected servers and potentially hundreds of virtual servers and thousands of desktops.
  3. Surprise expenses - SMBs are often taken aback when they are asked to make a significant upfront investment for project management costs and to build required shared storage infrastructure. Often, these additional expenses stem from the higher availability and performance requirements of centralized operations, particularly when they entail replacing existing, direct-attach disks with new, high-end storage devices and separately-priced SAN features.

How SMBs can avoid virtualization pitfalls

Knowing the potential challenges of virtualization before embarking on deployment can help SMBs avoid common problems.  Smaller companies seeking out the best virtualization options should consider several important factors.

  • Virtualization for SMBs is different than virtualization for large enterprises. It might be tempting to choose modular virtualization solutions, but SMBs should resist this option. Modular components require integration of new technologies, many of which are geared toward large datacenters. Solutions built for bigger businesses bring unnecessary expense and complexity to SMBs.
  • The best solution for your business might not be the one that appears cheapest at the outset. You're likely to find hardware vendors who will offer you cheap versions of their virtualization components. However, assembling low-end equipment at the start of a project can lead your SMB to expensive changes later on or to an environment that will not scale as your data center grows.
  • Look for fully integrated and scalable virtualization solutions: Select a solution that allows you to start small and scale easily by enabling the addition of servers and storage to the infrastructure. The ideal solution for SMBs should be one that is quick to set up, easy to maintain, minimizes the number of heterogeneous, multi-vendor software and hardware required and should not necessitate a parallel environment to manage it. Choose a virtualization solution that does not require any hardware other than standard servers and is based on the same operating system family as the virtualized servers (e.g., Microsoft Windows and Hyper-V).
  • Insist on high availability: Data loss is not an option for SMBs, and no matter how fault tolerant your servers and storage subsystems may be, if you only have a single copy of the most current data, you are at risk. SMBs need solutions that provide continuous real-time data replication.
  • Make the most of your existing technology investments: Repurposing existing hardware can save you a large portion of your virtualization budget. Select storage virtualization software that lets you construct virtual SANs using internal disks in each physical server. The software should be capable of turning a pair of existing servers into a dedicated, highly available and high-performance SAN.
  • Remember one word - simplify: Be realistic about your available resources, both in funds and staff time. Look at solutions that are easy to implement, require little training and optimize the use of technology already in place. Keep the reality of your smaller environment in mind at all times.

The virtual bottom line for SMBs

SMBs looking to adopt virtualization technologies often find that they don't know where to begin, and some even question whether the benefits of this technology extend to them. Virtualization is not a one-size-fits-all strategy, but it is a technology that can offer rewards to SMBs that are comparable to those realized by larger enterprises.  The key for SMBs is to fully understand their own resources and needs in order to select the most effective solutions.  When approached correctly, virtualization provides a flexible infrastructure that positions SMBs for predictable, manageable growth at low risk and cost.

About the Author

Eric Courville is the chief operating officer and co-founder of VM6 Software.  He has more than 18 years of successful experience in sales, marketing and business development and a solid track record at improving top-line growth. Prior to joining VM6, Eric was vice president of worldwide sales and business development at Embotics and PlateSpin.

Published Monday, November 01, 2010 5:00 AM by David Marshall
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