Advice for starting server virtualization

How to make the move from real, physical hardware to virtual hardware

Virtualization -- the move to go from real, physical hardware to virtual hardware -- is being seen as one of the "next big things" in IT. There are more virtualization options for IT departments than ever before, including open-source applications from Xen and Virtual Iron; Microsoft's Virtual Server taking off like wildfire; and the venerable VMware products.

But if you're new to this party, you might not know how to get started. In this article, I'll break down a recommended workflow and procedure for assessing if virtualization is right for you and, if it is, how to get things moving. Other resources include a tutorial from VMware that explains virtualization in layman's terms and a vendor-neutral entry on Wikipedia.

1. Determine if you have servers ripe for consolidation

Consolidating hardware is, bar none, the No. 1 reason for considering virtualization. Aging hardware, bursting data centers, burgeoning power needs -- all these factors have played a part in the increase of virtualization. Why should you continue acquiring distinct physical machines when you can move real servers to even bigger machines at a ratio nearing 3, 4, 5 or, even in some cases, 10 to 1?

The first step in virtualization is determining if you have the right type of infrastructure to support it. If you have a lot of machines doing similar tasks, these machines are well suited for virtualization. You also should make sure you have an appropriate number of servers to move -- 10 machines or less, and the payoff begins to be questionable. As you move above 10 potential servers, however, the benefits begin to accumulate.

2. Get the administrative headaches out of the way

Any big, involved move like server consolidation or a large deployment is likely to affect some internal processes. Like any major project, it's important to get your stakeholders' support and receive management buy-in. You'll most likely need to present a business case for moving to virtual services, including money saved, total financial outlay and other means. You may also have to address staffing: As the number of physical servers is reduced, some budgets dictate that manpower must also reduce by a proportional amount. You may be required to anticipate workloads and quantify the effect that fewer physical servers, but the same or more virtual servers, would have on your department's overall task and time needs.

Also, examine your licensing needs. Depending on what software you'll be running on your virtualization machines and what their configurations are, you may need to adjust licensing and purchase additional licenses to cover new CPUs or user bases.

3. Select your hardware and software

There are several choices on the market to assist in your virtualization needs, and they're all available at a variety of price points. Microsoft's Virtual Server and VMware's VMware Server are available at no cost to your organization. Bigger applications, like ESX Server and Xen's products, are available at a higher cost but provide more features and better performance. It all comes down to whether you need simple server consolidation, or advanced hosting and network configuration capabilities. Each vendor would be more than happy to help you assess your needs, of course, and several have "starter kits" that let you pilot and explore the technology at relatively low cost.

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