What Virtualization Means for Small Business

By Drew Robb | Posted January 31, 2008

Virtualization is the latest buzzword steamrolling across the IT landscape, influencing every computer room in its path. Everyone is doing it, according to analysts. Everybody needs it, say the vendors. But does it really add any value to the small business? As usual the answer varies from company to company.

If you own or manage a small shop with a handful of servers and a bookkeeper that doubles as your IT guy two hours per day, don’t even bother reading the rest of this article. For those of you with more substantial computing needs, who seem to have way too many servers or skyrocketing IT costs, virtualization may offer some relief.

“Companies with IT teams of one to four people or firms with 60 or fewer employees often don’t have the level of sophistication required to make virtualization pay,” said Chip Nickolett, president of Comprehensive Consulting Solutions Inc., that has helped several small businesses take their first steps into the virtual world. “In these environments, the benefit of virtualization would be marginal at best.”

These are not hard-and-fast numbers, of course. Tiny firms in financial services, law and other sectors sometimes have both significant IT requirements, the budget and the staff required to make virtualization pay big dividends.

Understanding the V Word
But let’s start with a statement to clarify what virtualization is in simple terms – not as easy a task as it sounds. You have to speak to the geeks in order to get a definition and it’s not in their DNA to use laymen’s terms. So what does the V word mean?

“Virtualization enables one server or computer to act as many,” said Dan Chu, vice president of emerging products and markets at VMware. “Instead of keeping your important programs on separate servers so that if one application or server fails, the other applications aren’t affected, virtualization software lets you run many applications on the same server.”

In such a scenario, you actually have one server sitting on the floor, but it acts as though it were several servers. Virtualization software enables that server to be split up into different partitions.

For example, one server could act as, say, three virtual servers with each virtual server running an application (i.e., file server, Web server and e-mail server). Each virtual server acts completely independently from one another so that if one crashes, the others are not affected. The net result is that you have to buy only one server and pay for its power consumption. You get the benefit of three servers for the cost of one.

“The way that I explain it to people is that virtualization is a way to make an environment portable,” said Nickolett.

This means that software can be easily relocated to a larger or smaller machine or even moved from one operating system to another. This is accomplished by splitting one physical server into numerous virtual servers or virtual machines (VM). Each VM hosts a specific application or set of software. As everything is virtual, it is easy to move the VMs around and make changes in the IT environment.

Some small businesses embark upon the virtualization journey as a way to simplify disaster recovery. Typically, they just went through their first disaster and experienced a nightmare trying to recover their systems: finding the right back up tapes, hooking them up to new hardware, and finding all sorts problems – like not having a record of their software licenses and not being able to find the original CDs for their operating systems and programs.

They have to go through the laborious task of re-installing and re-configuring everything and making it work on the new hardware and then figuring out how to get the data from the tapes back into the systems. This process can take many days if you're not familiar with it.

Virtualization, on the other hand, makes it relatively easy to capture everything onto a single system image, which makes recovery a snap. “A virtual image makes recovery or failover faster, easier and more foolproof,” said Nickolett. “Like anything, it requires planning and testing, but it can be an attractive alternative for some businesses.”

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