Completing the Promise of Virtualization
- From The Confident SMB, July 2010 Issue (Download This Entire Issue in PDF)
Server virtualization has a big upside, according to midsize companies interviewed by The Confident SMB. Gains achieved include:
Racks full of noisy, unreliable old boxes are transformed into one almost empty rack with a few quiet and powerful new boxes, each hosting dozens of virtual servers. Payback is fast.
Frequent application downtime is transformed into almost 100 percent availability.
Disaster recovery (DR) is shortened from weeks into hours, at a cost 70 percent less than with traditional DR approaches.
Avoid the downside…
Not enough attention is paid to virtualization’s risks. Pitfalls include. Backing up and recovering virtual environments is more complex than it might seem.
When a physical server hosting virtual servers goes down, all virtual servers on it go down as well. There’s potential for greater disruption.
Virtual servers are fast and cheap to deploy—sometimes making it too easy to deploy more than necessary.
Nevertheless, notes Ray Boggs, vice president, Small/Medium Business and Home Office Research at IDC, “our surveys show that about 40 to 50 percent of midsize businesses now have at least one virtualized server in place, and they rapidly expand virtualization once they get started.”
What can other businesses teach you about how to multiply the gains of virtualization and avoid the pitfalls? The Confident SM gathered the top 10 insights from decision makers, IT partners, and industry analysts.
1) Choose your hypervisor carefully
Which hypervisor (software allowing multiple operating systems to run on a host computer concurrently) is right for your business?
Notes industry observer Al Gillen, program vice president, System Software at IDC: “In some cases customers default to whatever hypervisor is available within their infrastructure. In a Microsoft shop, they might choose Hyper-V. In a Linux shop, they may default to Citrix XenServer or Kernelbased Virtual Machine (KVM). VMware is seen as not having a platform agenda, and there’s a good chance a Linux- Windows shop will choose VMware. But hypervisor features are largely similar—the real differentiation is in system management tools.”
The bar is being raised continually in system management tools, Gillen adds. “In some cases, customers wind up with different management consoles for virtual and physical servers. This is not a good long-term strategy. Some vendors are integrating consoles. Microsoft is fairly far ahead in this area.”
For businesses that are already investing in Microsoft Windows Server 2008 R2, taking advantage of the integrated Hyper-V technology can reduce virtualization licensing costs by 98 percent, says Matt Baldwin, president of Vertisys, a Symantec partner. “For one client, Hyper-V cost us less than $1,000,” he says. “VMware would have cost between $50,000 and $60,000 in licensing.”
2) Streamline your P2V conversion
When virtualizing, the easiest way to perform physical to virtual (P2V) server conversions is to delegate the project to an experienced IT partner, says Dr. Steven Vicinanza, chief executive officer of BlueWave Computing, LLC, another Symantec partner.
“If you find the right team with the right experience, virtualization is fairly straightforward,” Vicinanza says. “But there is a learning curve. We’ve come upon some installations not virtualized properly, such as one that had many small Citrix-based virtual servers, each with insufficient memory and CPU. When performance suffered, they spun up additional small servers, which is inefficient. Virtualization is an art. Most businesses are better off getting some outside advice.”
IDC’s Boggs confirms: “More often than not, businesses with 100 or fewer employees turn to a partner for virtualization assistance because they don’t have the expertise on staff.”
BlueWave Computing practiced the art of virtualization on Atlanta-based Northside Anesthesiology Consultants, LLC, and Northside reported that the operation was painless. “They virtualized one or two servers a day,” recalls Mark Panfel, Northside’s chief operating officer and chief financial officer. “They did it either in the evening or on the weekend in a way that we didn’t know it was being done. A tech called me and said, ‘I’m finished,’ and I said, ‘Oh, great! I didn’t even know you started.’”
Another way to streamline virtualization is to choose the right tools for the process, says Vertisys’ Baldwin. Symantec Backup Exec System Recovery 2010 Virtual Edition enables seamless physical–to-virtual and virtual-to-physical (V2P) conversions for Microsoft, VMware, and Citrix virtual environments. This has proven valuable as Vertisys transforms a client’s infrastructure from physical to virtual.
“Just recently, we used the P2V feature to convert all the old Windows 2003 boxes at a client’s offices to 2008 R2 virtual machines,” says Baldwin. “We were able to reduce the time to convert each server to three hours. If we had done the conversion manually, it would have taken us as long as 12 hours for each box.”
3) Boost server performance at half the cost
In an era of lean budgets, server virtualization can deliver multiple benefits, including savings.
Hall Booth Smith & Slover (HBSS) is a good example. The law firm has seven regional offices in Georgia, Tennessee, and South Carolina. Its 200 employees bring clients the costeffective agility of a small firm with the breadth of expertise and regional presence of a large firm.
“We don’t believe there is another full-service firm in our area that covers the practice areas we do at the price point we do,” says John E. Hall, Jr., a founding partner.
Keeping costs down, however, meant the fast-growing firm ended up with 10 old servers, some in operation more than seven years.
“We wanted to increase server performance so we could deploy a new accounting package and also improve our disaster recovery plan,” explains Gary Gravlin, director of finance at HBSS. “Virtualization (deployed by Symantec IT Partner Vertisys) is helping us accomplish all those objectives and achieve hardware savings of 30 to 50 percent.” The firm will end up with 16 virtual machines hosted on three physical servers running Hyper-V.
Virtualization is also delivering multiple gains at a similar-size organization: Pepsi-Cola Bottling Co. of Central Virginia. Based in Charlottesville, it has 350 employees, all of whom are served by an IT staff of two: Fred Schubert, manager of information technology, and one computer support analyst. In 1999, Schubert joined an IT staff of eight. The reduction in staff size has been made possible by automation, strong processes, and steps such as server virtualization, deployed with the assistance of OFM Computer Systems, Inc., a Symantec partner.
When virtualization is complete, eight physical boxes (which were as much as six years old) will run as virtual machines on two new physical hosts in a VMware vSphere 4 environment. “The total cost of ownership savings will be at least 50 percent,” Schubert observes.
4) Recover from disaster 10-fold faster, for 70 percent less
For midsize businesses, virtualization makes disaster recovery practical. “Before virtualization, many small and mid-size organizations simply hoped that nothing bad would ever happen, because if it did, they would’ve been in trouble,” notes IDC’s Gillen. “Only large organizations could afford to take advantage of mirroring and other DR solutions. But today, a small or mid-size business can use virtualization to gain the ability to failover applications, and take snapshots of their virtual machines and move them off site if they want to.”
That’s critical at HBSS. “The worst thing that could happen to a law firm is not having a good disaster recovery plan,” says Gravlin. “After Hurricane Katrina, some firms never came back.”
Vertisys designed a new disaster recovery solution at HBSS. Because of the firm’s virtual environment—with many virtual servers running on each physical host—it included a backup and recovery solution that would enable it to recover servers quickly from a disk-based image. Vertisys recommended Symantec Backup Exec System Recovery 2010 Virtual Edition, which allows HBSS to protect an unlimited number of Windows virtual guest machines per host with a single license. Backup copies can be sent to off-site locations via FTP or to a secondary disk drive for enhanced DR capabilities.
“Using Microsoft Hyper-V and Symantec Backup Exec System Recovery 2010 Virtual Edition, we’re able to offer customers a cost-effective disaster recovery solution that can reduce recovery time for servers hosting virtual environments from days to hours,” says Vertisys’ Baldwin. “We’ve done a substantial amount of testing with different products, and we believe strongly in this combination.”
By combining a virtualized server cluster with image-based backup and FTP replication to remote sites, Vertisys was able to save HBSS money while providing the enterprise-class DR capabilities the firm needed.
“Compared to a traditional clustering arrangement and DR solution with no virtualization involved—which would have required a co-location facility, additional software, and redundant hardware—we saved HBSS at least 70 percent in costs,” says Baldwin. “With the Microsoft and Symantec solution, we can now replicate the backup copies via FTP to one of the firm’s remote offices. If a disaster were to strike Atlanta, we can restore the virtual machines on any hardware that’s available at a remote office. And we don’t need to be on site to do it.”
Business continuity is also critical at Pepsi-Cola Bottling. “Pepsi celebrated its hundredth anniversary in business several years ago, and has never missed a payroll in all that time,” says Schubert. “We’ve calculated that we would lose well over $80,000 a day if we were not able to connect to our servers. The pressure is on me to keep things running.”
With that in mind, IT Partner OFM Computer Systems worked with Schubert to identify the company’s three most critical servers, which are email, route management, and payroll. Says Gene Bumgardner, director of technical services at OFM: “Using Symantec Backup Exec System Recovery and VMware, we’ve reduced the recovery time objective for these critical servers from roughly a day down to two hours. We have a server at OFM ready to be a recovery target if necessary, so these applications can be recovered off-site.
5) Be sure to practice disaster recovery—it’s easy!
Too often, Bumgardner observes, businesses let down their guard about disaster recovery once they’re virtualized, thinking that their virtualization management features will save them when needed. “My suggestion is to conduct a fire drill and test those capabilities,” he says. “You can practice recovery in an offline environment. It’s like football—you need repetitions so that during crunch time, when the CFO is coming to you and asking about status, you’re so comfortable that you can be executing recovery, reading a newspaper, and having a donut at the same time.”
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6) Use an overlooked benefit: V2P
Should crunch time occur, Bumgardner continues, and “you’re hurtling at 176 feet per second toward the earth, there can never be too many parachutes.” One alternative he has developed is to “use Symantec Backup Exec System Recovery to write a set of image files to a network accessible storage device, and then leverage the Restore Anywhere feature of Backup Exec System Recovery to do a virtual to physical recovery to dissimilar hardware. In a jam, we want to have that option.”
7) Centralize management
Centralized administration is another benefit of virtualization. HBSS has servers in all eight of its offices, and IT partner Vertisys is virtualizing each server as it comes up for replacement. “Ultimately, all offices will be virtualized,” Baldwin explains, “making it much easier for us to manage the servers remotely.”
Northside Anesthesiology Consultants is realizing a similar benefit. “Before virtualization, we had a server go down probably every single month,” says Northside’s Panfel. “Virtualization on VMware enables our whole system to be controlled from a single console. Now if something goes wrong, some tech at our IT Partner BlueWave, at 3 a.m. while wearing his pajamas, is able to bring everything back up. That’s real peace of mind for us.”
8) Simplify security and compliance
There’s another benefit to virtualization, says BlueWave’s Vicinanza. “Security and compliance are a little bit easier because we standardize our server image and the security settings on that image. So when we stand up new servers, many of the security settings are preconfigured.”
9) Optimize virtual backup
One challenge of a virtualized environment is that data protection can be become more complex. Traditionally, two backup passes were needed: an image-based backup for full server recovery (virtual or physical) and a filelevel backup to respond to individual recovery requests.
If two passes aren’t done, a long restore of an entire virtual machine is needed to recover even one file within it.
OFM helped Pepsi-Cola Bottling avoid this complexity by using Symantec Backup Exec. The Backup Exec Agent for VMware Virtual Infrastructures allows an IT person or OFM to recover individual files without restoring entire virtual machines, and it eliminates the need to do two passes when backing up virtual environments.
“We rely on Backup Exec to do our daily backup to disk, and it gives us any type of recovery option we need,” says OFM’s Bumgardner. “Just today we used the Backup Exec Agent for VMware Virtual Infrastructures to dip into the backup and grab a handful of files that were hurt. We need the granular level of recovery that the agent provides.”
Now, if a user accidentally overwrites some data, Pepsi-Cola Bottling’s Schubert doesn’t panic. “If that happened when I first came on board, I’m not sure what I would have done,” he says. “Sometimes I would make two tape backups in case I’d go to restore something and get a tape error. It would take the better part of a day to restore, if I could even get the data back.”
Since moving to Symantec Backup Exec, restores are no longer a concern. “We can restore files in minutes now, and the data is always there,” says Schubert.
10) Avoid the hidden cost of NOT virtualizing
There are opportunities lost if you’re not virtualizing, sums up BlueWave Computing’s Vicinanza. For instance, Northside Anesthesiology, which had older servers prior to virtualization, was spending considerable time on remediation. “Now they can focus on what technology can do for the business,” Vicinanza notes. “We’re adding unified communications, and one of its features enables users to see voice messages in their inboxes, with the caller identified in the subject line. They can skip to important messages and delete junk.”
Northside has 44 doctors in the firm and 45 other people in administration who get frequent voicemails, Vicinanza adds. “This one feature can save 90 people five minutes a day,” he points out. That’s 1,500 hours of reclaimed productivity a year, yielding more time for patient care. It’s yet another gain enabled by virtualization—and a little less pain and suffering in the world.
More Analyst Tips for Success*
When virtualizing, make sure you:
Can undo each step as you virtualize.
Have software licensing allowing for:
a. Deployment on hypervisors
b. Failover to other servers
Are ready to prevent virtual server sprawl.
a. Understand a server’s lifecycle before deploying
b. Turn off and archive unused servers after a set period
Avoid complexity by unifying physical and virtual server management
* Interview with Ray Boggs, vice president, Small/ Medium Business and Home Office Research, IDC, and Al Gillen, program vice president, System Software, IDC, May 7, 2010.
Alan Drummer is Creative Director for Content at NAVAJO Company. His work has appeared in CIO Digest, Los Angeles Times, Create Magazine, and on the History Channel.