Living in a Virtual World Gets a Little Easier

By Dan Muse | Posted February 05, 2007

It's a question that's beginning to permeate small and mid-sized business: Can virtual technologies solve real problems?

Based on comments from analysts and products from VMware, the bellwether company of the virtualization market, the answer appears to be a yes.

And that "yes" is a little more definitive based on an announcement by VMware. Today, the company introduced VirtualCenter for VMware Server, a new bundle designed to provide SMBs using the free VMware Server with what's designed to be an easy-to-use and cost-effective way to manage a virtual server infrastructure.

"There's a real problem of server sprawl [in small and mid-sized business] — two, three or four servers become 15, 20 or 30 servers," Ben Matheson, director of product management at VMware, said. He added that those servers are not well-utilized. Typically, he said, only 10-15 percent of a server's resources are used.

"More servers mean paying more for hardware, using more space, spending more on electricity, needing more air conditioning. Hardware costs associated with server sprawl is a problem for SMBs," Matheson said.

Apparently, small businesses are aware of the problem. Matheson said that of the 1.2 million downloads of VMware Server (which has been available since July), 70 percent are by SMBs. "SMBs are adopting it in droves," he said "We expect that to accelerate in coming years."

VMware Server's popularity with small businesses doesn't surprise Jean Bozman, senior vice president Worldwide Server Group at IDC, a Framingham, Mass.-based research firm. Most people tend to think that virtualization means larger enterprise, she said, "but when you go to conferences like VMworld, and when you look more closely, there are a lot small businesses."

SMBs are adopting virtualization because it lowers the total cost of their IT infrastructure while providing flexibility not possible with a purely physical environment, according to Matheson. For example, VMware Server works with both Linux and Windows servers and lets you partition a physical server into multiple virtual machines. VirtualCenter is designed to provide a way to manage the virtual servers running under VMware Server.

Another tool that helps SMBs quickly move to a virtual world is VMware Converter, which was released last month, also for no charge. The tool is designed to help migrate physical systems to a virtualized infrastructure. That is, as its name implies, it automates the process of converting physical services into virtual ones.

"Virtualization is a different way of thinking about what you have. Business have lot of servers and anything to automate the process helps," Bozman said. "Businesses are bringing in newer servers with more power. They are going from one core to dual core. They are getting more of everything in the same physical space."

Products such as VMware Server and VMware Converter help you move your physical servers to a virtual infrastructure, but, Bozman said, "then you need some type of dashboard to manage it. I like to think of it as virtualization and visualization." She added that as SMBs start to use VMware Server to create virtual environments, "they are asking themselves, 'Do I have the skills to manage that?' and VMware is saying, 'We know that you don't.' And that's where VirtualCenter comes in.

Charles King, principal analyst with PundIT, agrees that the new management suite is well-suited to SMBs who don't have the resources to manage or hire an IT person to handle virtual infrastructure. "It's a good solution for businesses that don't have that kind of expertise on hand. It doesn't make sense to save $50,000 to $100,000 [by moving to a virtual environment] and then spend $50,000 - $80,000 too hire someone to manage it."

What Does VirtualCenter Really Do
To help you manage that virtual world is what VMware VirtualCenter suite (which includes VMware Server) is designed to do. It provides "an easy on-ramp to virtualization, allowing you to centralize physical and virtual server management by providing a single pane of glass," Matheson said. By using that single interface to monitor virtual servers, you can better optimize server capacity and make better decisions about which servers to virtualize, Matheson said. You can also set up e-mail alerts to notify when your virtual servers hit thresholds such as CPU utilization.

VirtualCenter for VMware Server also speeds up the process of provisioning servers, Matheson said. "Provisioning a new [physical] server is traditionally very slow. It can take days or weeks to acquire hardware, load the OS, add backup agents and administer network settings." The capability for rapid server provisioning is designed to reduce the time needed to provision a server from days to minutes, he said.

To further help you create virtual servers, VirtualCenter let you create a library of templates making it faster to deploy new e-mail, Web server and database servers, Matheson said.

The new virtualization management bundle with one VirtualCenter for VMware Server, three agents and enterprise-class support, including unlimited 30-day support from VMware, has a list price of $1,500. Or you can purchase VirtualCenter for VMware Server separately for $1,000 plus $400 per agent per physical server managed. Enterprise-class support for VMware Server sells for $350 for a one-year subscription per two processors.

Where Do You Go From Here?
"2007 will be a pretty interesting year for VMware," King said. "There are lots of x86 products with robust commercial offerings: Microsoft Virtual Server, XEN Server and Virtual Iron," he said, to name a few. "But what VMware has that those companies don't is experience. It has the products and the presence in the market. The number of [VMware Server] downloads going to small businesses is good news for VMware."

"Virtualization is not just some weird technology. It's a viable solution that makes life easier."

Dan Muse is executive editor of internet.com's Small Business Channel, EarthWeb's Networking Channel and ServerWatch.

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