Server virtualisation for a small business

Steps towards a successful implementation

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Traditionally virtualisation has been regarded as an option for medium to large organisations, but advances in technology are making it viable for small businesses.

As explained in a white paper published by Dell, Intel and Microsoft, they can run multiple applications and operating systems on one or two servers, reducing hardware and maintenance costs and saving on space.

Virtualisation provides the option of allowing applications to run on the same computer while each has its own, isolated guest operating system. It involves inserting the hypervisor software layer between the server's hardware and the guest operating system, providing an abstraction layer than allows each physical server to run on one or more 'virtual' servers.

This effectively decouples the operating systems and applications from the underlying physical server. The hypervisor allocates the resources needed to each operating system, although they appear to have the host's processor and memory to themselves.

While virtualisation can be applied across different areas of IT, it is commonly seen as most successful for servers, overcoming the fear of placing too many applications in a single physical box.

The benefits for a small business are numerous, including the reduction of hardware and maintenance costs, the ability to scale up infrastructure, reducing risks of IT outages and data loss, and the ability to provide a test and development environment. It can also be possible to implement a cost-effective disaster recovery strategy by using options such as live migration.

The right time often comes when there is a need to replace old servers or improve the utilisation rates of existing servers, and some companies choose to virtualise non-mission critical applications as a first step to test the impact.

There are barriers, often caused by limited budgets and uncertainty over the business benefits, and it needs a careful deployment to prevent 'server sprawl', which can result from a strategy that is poorly planned and managed.

Five steps are recommended for a small business to make a success of server virtualisation. The first is to work with a partner with the necessary expertise and understand of the business needs.

Second is to research the options, including cross-platform systems management for virtual and physical machines, and those that provide tools for gathering statistics and applying polices to the allocation of resources. It is also necessary to use legacy management tools to create more flexibility in an IT infrastructure.

Third is to set expectations correctly, so they reflect what the business most wants to achieve from the virtualisation. Fourth is to agree on operational and financial goals, there will be a need for changes and investment in these areas.

Finally, a carefully designed roll out schedule will keep the transition on track and minimise disruption.

It's also important to understand that virtualisation does not increase the overall amount of computing power available, which is still dependent on the server hardware. But it does make that hardware more effective.