6 Tips to Better Small Business Server Virtualization

In this article, we focus on server virtualization, which eliminates the conventional, one application per server model and allows businesses to run multiple, virtual servers on a single physical machine.

Much like the human brain, most physical servers use only a small fraction of their computing power, and that’s because conventional server technology matches just one operating system with one physical server.  And then — to make sure applications are compatible with the operating system — conventional servers are also paired one-to-one with business-critical software applications. This practice leaves huge portions of server capacity unused.

Server virtualization technology allows multiple, independent operating systems to run “virtually” on a single server, making the most of each physical server’s capacity. In effect, it creates multiple, independent computers on each server.  For example, instead of running 10 servers at 20 percent capacity each — and just one or a small handful of applications on each server — virtualization enables many businesses to use only two or three servers, each at close to maximum capacity. 

Eliminating physical machinery reduces power consumption – both the power to run the servers and the power to cool the server room. It also simplifies maintenance while keeping the same amount of computing power. When implemented correctly, server virtualization also frees up financial and human resources for more strategic initiatives.  Consolidating resources through virtualization can reduce server-related costs by an estimated 50 to 70 percent.

Server virtualization also allows businesses to repurpose their information technology (IT) infrastructure rapidly if necessary, providing greater up time, higher fault tolerance and improved operational continuity in the event of a disaster or failure.  However, poor planning decisions can eat away at the very savings that server virtualization offers.

If you’re considering the benefits that virtualized severs can bring to your small business, the following best practice tips will help you get the job done right.

1. Base your virtualization investment decisions on reality, not theory.  Conduct a comprehensive assessment of your server environment to identify which pieces of hardware you can — and should — virtualize.  Free tools from companies such as VMware or Microsoft can help identify exactly which servers are good candidates for virtualization, enabling you plan for your specific needs

2. Before virtualizing the servers your assessment targets, be certain that the software applications you use are compatible with virtualization software.  Qualified solution providers and most virtualization software vendors will help you determine if your server environment and applications are suitable for virtualization. 

3. Technology advances very quickly, and the virtualization platform you select — called a hypervisor — may not be compatible with aging server hardware. For example, servers that are only five or six years old often aren’t viable candidates for virtualization because they cannot run the common virtualization software systems.  Plus, the most common hypervisors — Citrix, Microsoft and VMware — are each a very different platform. Make an informed decision about which hypervisor will operate most effectively with your hardware platforms and meet your specific business needs

4. Revisit your data backup plan as you prepare to virtualize your servers.  Many vendors offer enhanced backup products for virtual infrastructure, some priced by the number of virtual servers on a machine (also called a “socket” or “host”).  These can reduce costs considerably.  However, if your business is tied to a long term maintenance contract for your current data backup infrastructure, you should consider whether making a change will break the contract. Breaking it could result in financial penalties.

5. To realize the greatest cost savings and return on investment, eliminate as many physical servers as possible.  That means taking one more step after you have consolidated your applications onto a virtualized server platform. Turn off and recycle or sell the now-unused servers — that’s where the most savings materialize.

6. Maintaining a virtual server environment is different than maintaining a traditional physical environment.  Before virtualizing your servers, invest in training your staff on how to maintain a virtual infrastructure.  Often, small businesses don’t invest in training because, depending on the size of your staff, it can cost thousands of dollars per year.  However, improperly maintained virtual environment can cost you much more in repairs and lost functionality.

Nathan Coutinho is the virtualization solutions manager for CDW.

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