Why SMBs Should Consider Server Virtualization

Until recently, server virtualization was thought of as something that only larger companies — with dozens or hundreds of physical servers — needed and could afford. But times, technology and the cost of virtual servers have changed, and today mid-sized and even small businesses with just a few servers stand to benefit from going virtual.

What is Server Virtualization?

A virtual server consists of software called a hypervisor running on a physical server, which allows you to partition that one server into many virtual machines and manage them all through a single interface.

“Server virtualization enables companies to run many applications on fewer physical servers without having to worry about application incompatibilities and support issues,” explained Mark Bowker, a senior analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group. Moreover, he said, “server virtualization allows IT to improve asset utilization and potentially lower IT operation costs.”

Server virtualization also makes disaster recovery — or any kind of application backup and recovery — a snap. That’s because virtualized data is independent from whatever hardware it’s running on, making it highly portable. “That’s really a key thing,” said Mike Egmont, a partner at Flagship Networks, a company that helps small and mid-sized businesses go virtual, who likened virtual servers to DVDs.

“With a virtualized server, everything [i.e., all that data you stored on that virtual server] essentially fits into one big file, which you can copy onto another virtualized server,” Egmont explained. It’s similar to how “you can take one DVD out of a DVD player and put it into another DVD player without losing any data,” he explained.

Egmont compared that process to an application running on Windows on a physical server. “In order to get that application onto another server, you would first need to install or reinstall Windows. Then you would need to reinstall that application and reconfigure it. It’s a pain in the butt – and incredibly time consuming, especially if it’s a custom application.”

If, however, you had a virtual server, instead of taking 100 hours to configure (or reconfigure) that application on a new physical server, it would take just a few hours, including testing, he said.

How to Decide if Server Virtualization is Right for Your Business

If you are a very small business, with just one server, you probably don’t need to go virtual. However, “anybody with more than one server should consider server virtualization,” said Egmont. “And anybody with more than three servers really should.” He also includes anyone replacing or upgrading their existing servers in the should-consider-virtualization category.

“A good candidate for server virtualization would be a company that is going through [or planning] a hardware refresh, an application upgrade or is looking to improve their disaster recovery strategy,” added ESG’s Bowker. Server virtualization can also help smaller businesses better control IT costs and free up IT staff for other tasks. Similarly, it can also free up valuable real estate as a single virtual server can replace several (or more) physical servers.

Can Migrating to a Virtual Server Damage Data?

The short answer to the question is “no.” While in the past there were some issues with data migration, both Bowker and Egmont (and other experts) said that migrating from a physical server to a virtual server today is easy — and will not mess up your data. In fact, most new physical servers from the leading vendors (e.g., Microsoft, Dell and IBM) now come virtualized, and there are plenty of tools available (if not included) to help you quickly and easily migrate data from a physical server to a virtual one.

Benefits of Server Virtualization

• Fewer physical servers required
• Improved availability and uptime
• Lower power and cooling costs
• Lower IT operating costs
• Reduced server provisioning time
• Faster disaster recovery

That said, not every application (at least right now) will run or run optimally on a virtualized server. Things like software for scanners and fax boards, i.e., proprietary and/or specialized applications that are tied to a piece of hardware, are not good candidates for virtualization. So before you make the move to virtualization, you need to determine which applications can be successfully virtualized (experts advise that you check with the vendor).

While managing virtual servers is similar to managing physical servers, you may want or need to work with a virtualization specialist to help you get up and running if you have a small IT staff.

“Server virtualization requires IT generalist skills, which range across server, application, networking and storage skills,” explained Bowker. “In the mid-market, typically the IT person already has those skills,” though that may not be the case at smaller businesses. Added Egmont, “if someone has the skill set to manage a Windows server, they’re about 75 percent there. There’s a bit of learning curve, but it’s not like learning a programming language.”

Choosing a Virtual Server

When it comes to choosing a virtual server, the experts cite VMware vSphere (with VMware ESX) for small businesses, Microsoft Hyper-V and Citrix XenServer as the best options for smaller businesses.

VMware currently has the biggest market share and more than 10 years of virtualization experience. Its VMware vSphere Essentials software supports most operating systems and is easy to implement and manage — and currently 50 percent off ($495 instead of $995) through June 15, 2010.

Microsoft Hyper-V, which Microsoft offers as a free download, is also popular, especially among businesses that already use Microsoft Windows Server 2008 (or are planning to purchase it) and Microsoft applications. And while many experts say that Hyper-V is not the best virtual server out there, it’s hard to beat free and convenient.

If you prefer or like the idea of an open source solution, there’s Citrix XenServer, which is also available as a free download. While Bowker is a fan of the Citrix XenServer which, like VMware’s ESX, supports a number of operating systems, including Windows, Linux and Solaris, and has a good track record, Egmont felt it was better suited to “larger, more skilled players.”

So how do you pick the right virtualized server for your small business? “Ask around,” said Egmont. Talk to other business owners about what they use and why — and how they like their virtual servers. Also, talk to the vendors, and/or integrators who specialize in small business virtualization. But be sure to ask about their experience (specifically if they have helped companies of your size and in your industry) and get references before hiring anyone.

Ultimately, the virtualized server you choose should be able to work well with your applications and your IT staff, who, after all, will be managing it.

Jennifer Lonoff Schiff is a regular contributor to Small Business Computing and runs a blog for and about small businesses.

Do you have a comment or question about this article or other small business topics in general? Speak out in the SmallBusinessComputing.com Forums. Join the discussion today!

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