Why SMBs should consider adopting virtualization

SMBs looking to adopt virtualization technologies often find that they don't know where to begin. Here are some benefits and challenges to expect if you decide to take the plunge.
Written by Eric Courville, Contributor

Finding the right virtualization solution, like buying any other technology, can be a bit overwhelming.

Take cell phones, for example. There are so many options out there today; you really have to know what you want in a phone, what you're going to use it for, and how often you're going to use it. Do you choose the Blackberry? The iPhone? An Android? The decision, of course, all comes down to what type of cell phone user you are and which product best fits your needs.

Small and midsize businesses (SMBs) looking to adopt virtualization technologies often find that they don't know where to begin. There are so many virtualization solutions out there today; which one do you choose? Or do you even need to virtualize your infrastructure? For starters, you should at least consider it: Not only does virtualization provide a flexible infrastructure that will position the SMB for growth in a much more predictable way, it also reduces risk and cost while providing higher value and a greater return on investment.

By now, the benefits of virtualization are fairly well known:

  • Efficiency and cost reduction--Virtualization technologies increase the utilization of servers and storage in order to run the IT infrastructure more efficiently and at a lower cost.
  • Simplification of management and maintenance--Virtualization allows organizations to reduce (planned) downtime by relocating workloads before systems undergo planned maintenance or upgrades. The speed of provisioning is increased by migrating virtual servers and desktops between physical platforms without impacting users.
  • Improving availability and disaster recovery--Through the use of virtualization, organizations can have fewer systems at the DR site to run the virtual workloads and recovery can be done on dissimilar hardware, both of which significantly reduce the cost of the DR site.

However, virtualization does present a number of challenges to SMBs as they consider moving from a physical environment. These include:

  • Requirement of shared storage--Before virtual servers and virtual desktops can freely move between different hardware platforms, they must have common access to shared storage. They rely on shared storage to transfer the running state of workloads between physical servers. This is generally accomplished by replacing direct-attached disks with storage area networks (SANs) that interconnect to multiple servers.
  • Putting all the eggs in one virtual basket--Whereas storage disruptions and slowdowns in physical servers are usually isolated to a single server or a single application, they are far more crippling in the virtual world. Any bottlenecks or single points of failure in a centralized SAN ripple across the entire set of interconnected servers and potentially hundreds of virtual servers and thousands of desktops.
  • Unforeseen project costs--When organizations launch server or desktop virtualization projects, they are often surprised to find that there is a significant upfront investment required in project management costs and in building the required shared storage infrastructure. Often, these additional costs stem from the higher availability and performance requirements of centralized operations, particularly when they entail replacing existing, direct-attach disks with new, high-end storage devices and separately priced SAN features.

So what should SMBs look for when considering a virtualization solution?

  1. Look for one that has been specifically designed for the needs of the SMB: Avoid having to set up modular virtualization solutions, since this will require the integration of many new technologies into the IT infrastructure. Those technologies are often designed for large datacenters and are simply overkill for a smaller organization's needs.
  2. Avoid choosing a virtualization solution based solely on the cost of acquisitions: Some hardware vendors have started to offer cheap versions of the different components used in large virtualization infrastructures. Building a virtualization solution by assembling these low-end pieces of equipment only creates a complex infrastructure that is still too expensive and not scalable. Unfortunately, SMBs continue to make this mistake mainly because of the lack of knowledge coming from their local IT service providers.
  3. Select a fully integrated and scalable virtualization solution: A good strategy would be to go with a virtualization solution that doesn't require any hardware other than standard servers and one based on the same operating system family as the virtualized servers (e.g., Microsoft Windows and Hyper-V). The chosen solution should also allow companies to start small and scale easily as the organization grows (e.g., by enabling the addition of servers and storage to the infrastructure). The ideal solution for SMBs should be one that is quick to set up, easy to maintain, minimizes the number of heterogeneous, multivendor software and hardware required, and does not necessitate a parallel environment to manage it.
  4. Look at the ability to remove shared storage-related dependencies: Instead of ripping out and replacing hardware, the ability to repurpose existing hardware can save SMBs a large portion of their virtualization budgets. Storage virtualization software that lets you construct virtual SANs using internal disks in each physical server is an efficient and cost-effective solution. In this case, the software should be capable of turning a pair of existing servers into a dedicated, highly available and high-performance SAN.
  5. Consider high availability as a minimum requirement when implementing virtualization: No matter how fault tolerant your servers and storage subsystems may be, if you have only a single copy of the most current data, you are at risk for data loss. SMBs need to address the risk of data loss by looking at solutions that provide continuous real-time replication to ensure data is available at all times, regardless of the type of failure: storage subsystem, user error or hardware crash.
  6. Find virtualization solutions that help simplify your environment: As SMBs look at various vendors that claim to be virtualization-solution providers, they need to consider a solution that will not only provide the expected results but will also simplify the overall environment. Not all virtualization solutions are the same and not one virtualization solution fits all types of environments, so look at solutions that are easy to implement, require little training, and optimize the use of resources already in place. When it comes to virtualization for the SMB, look for a solution that is designed for the reality of the smaller environment. Such options should be easy to install, configure and maintain.

All businesses, whether enterprises or small-to-midsize businesses, should be able to reap the benefits of virtualization. Whether you're an SMB or an enterprise with remote/branch offices, virtualization doesn't need to be a daunting experience. Virtualization solutions designed for the SMB exist; it's just a matter of finding the right vendor that understands the business needs of the SMB and offers a solution right for that type of environment.

Eric Courville is the COO and co-founder of VM6 Software. He brings over 18 years of successful experience in sales, marketing and business development, and a solid track record at improving top-line growth. Prior to joining VM6, Eric was vice president of worldwide sales and business development at Embotics and PlateSpin. This article was first published as a blog post on TechRepublic.com.

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