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Virtual Appliances on the Scene

28 January 2008

Summary

Thanks to the development of virtual appliances, the lines between hardware and software are more blurred than ever.

Introduction

Thanks to the development of virtual appliances, the lines between hardware and software are more blurred than ever. This, however, is a good thing for small to mid-sized businesses that want a robust way to deploy applications without the management hassles and physical space and power requirements that accompany traditional means of deployment.

Too much of a good thing

Until now, hardware appliances have been the most efficient way for SMBs to deploy specialized IT solutions. Hardware appliances were developed to eliminate the headaches, time, and room for error involved with installing, configuring, and managing software across multiple pieces of hardware. Hardware appliances simplified things by housing all the pre-installed and configured software with a secure operating system inside a single machine. In recent years, SMBs have embraced the hardware appliance, buying multiple varieties, each performing a specific IT function. This overwhelming popularity has left many businesses suffering from appliance overload – that is, having too many separate appliances to house and manage.

Enter the virtual machines

The space-and power-saving benefits of virtual appliances, as well as the simplified management, really shine next to the limitations of hardware appliances. As the name implies, virtual appliances are not physical hardware, but instead are pre-built, pre-configured applications packaged with secure operating systems that are installed on virtualized server technology. One physical server can run multiple virtual appliances, and businesses can choose their server platform based on price and functionality, rather than being locked into one platform. Physical appliances and virtual appliances both have integrated operating systems, applications, and user interfaces in common. In addition, virtual appliances offer other benefits like flexible storage and server capacities.

Besides the space and power savings benefits, there are a number of other advantages to deploying a virtual appliance. They include:
  • Capital savings: The initial cost of virtual appliances is much less than hardware appliances, due to the ability to reuse existing hardware resources, and additional money will be saved by utilizing the data center’s virtualized failover and disaster recovery resources.
  • Higher availability: Virtual appliances enable easier change management (testing upgrades or configurations before actual deployment) and hardware maintenance (by allowing a virtual instance to be transferred to a different platform in order to perform hardware repairs) – all of which reduces the chance of errors, and as a result, the risk of downtime.
  • Instant trialware: Eliminates the wait for the hardware to arrive in-house, SMBs can download a trial virtual appliance on demand.
  • Easy hardware upgrades: The vendor need only provide a new integrated machine as a downloadable image – simply boot and run and you’re upgraded.
  • Reduced responsibility: The vendor, not the SMB, takes on managing all aspects of the software throughout the life of the appliance. This includes integration and updates.

Virtualization taking hold

Hardware appliances are still the most popular method for SMBs to deploy specialized solutions. But as virtual appliances continue to grow, they are likely to gain an increasing foothold among SMBs. As analyst The Yankee Group predicts in a December 2007 study, virtual appliances will enable the delivery of better-quality software and an improved user experience.

Like many major vendors, Symantec has entered the virtualization ring with the latest release of the Symantec Mail Security 8300 Series appliances. The 8300 Series offers fully integrated security appliances in either a physical or virtual form factor. Both versions provide the same level of protection against inbound and outbound email- and IM-borne threats. Each appliance deploys more than 20 innovative prevention technologies against all spam types, including text-, image-, and attachment-based messages. The new Symantec Mail Security 8300 – Virtual Edition appliance runs on either the free VMware Server or the more robust VMware ESX Server. Customers can even deploy the same software license on either appliance, making it simple and easy to try out the new virtual appliance in a risk-free fashion.

Conclusion

The virtualized appliance market is still in its infancy, and its nature and potential are constantly changing. Whether or not your business is ready to "go virtual," you should be aware that this option is available with a growing number of software and appliances you use. Luckily, it's easy to test drive a virtual appliance, and if you should happen to like it, it's no problem to keep it going. And if you don't like it, there's nothing to return. The physical appliance isn't going away, so at the end of the day, it's all about choice, and picking the solution that is right for your environment and needs.

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