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Public Cloud for SMB. Good or bad? August 25, 2014

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Today, at vmworld, I attended a session called “Ask the Experts vBloggers”. It was possibly the best session I attended today (the EVO:rail session was good as well). The format of the session was a Q and A – the audience asked the Qs and the panel of vBloggers provided the As. At one point, a young woman asked a question (and I’m severely paraphrasing from memory) regarding small business customers of hers – ones running essentials, essentials plus, free ESXi, etc., and whether they would be better off moving to their data and applications to the public cloud. As an IT manager for a small company myself, the question and the discussion that followed struck a chord with me.

I don’t wish to misquote anyone, so I won’t even attempt to attribute what was said to who said it, but to say the least, some valid arguments were made. It was mentioned that with all of the cloud offerings available it would not make sense for small companies to try to deal with the headache of maintaining services such as email on-premesis. Conversely, it was said that it would be important to consider the pain and hassle said company would have to go through to migrate services to a public cloud solution. As I tried to relate the scenarios to my own environment, in my mind rang a resounding, “no!”. Perhaps it is not the case for every company, but I’ll attempt to explain why I don’t believe public cloud is not a viable option for me.

For starters, I do realize that my company’s biggest advantage when it comes to IT is….wait for it….. Me! That isn’t meant to elevate me personally, but there are many small companies that do not have dedicated IT support. My company, before they hired me, saw that they were increasingly making more use of technology, and that a consultant paired with a couple of tech savvy users just wasn’t cutting it any longer. They needed someone full time to manage their IT infrastructure. However I realize that for many small businesses that isn’t an option. I can definitely see where moving applications and data to a place where someone else can manage it and safeguard it in a cost effective manner would be appealing. Does that mean that every small company should just hang it up when it comes to IT and let someone else handle it. I think not.

It the case of our company(ies), while I only have 40 users, the amount of data we have relative to our size is enormous. Our biggest chunk of data is file data, and at a civil engineering g firm, that means AutoCAD drawings, gigantic contract documents in Word and PDF, tax maps, and absolutely HUGE hi resolution aerial imagery. That alone would be excruciatingly painful to try to consume via the public cloud. As a matter of fact, we used to keep all of our project files on a file server in our datacenter, and the users in our two branch offices would have to access them over a T1 with WAN optimisers. There was not one week that went by without a couple of people complaining about it being slow, despite my best efforts. Now even with our new dedicated 10 MB fiber pipes, the experience would not be good. For that reason, each office has it’s own file server that backs up to the central data center. If it’s not good on a dedicated circuit, it won’t be good in the cloud.

Then there’s email. In our organization, email is mission critical (as I’m sure it is for most people). I have friends that have dropped exchange in favor of gmail, but there’s no way I can make myself do it. While it would be great to let someone handle the spam filtering and maintenance of the email system, I don’t think I could give up the granularity of control I have using Exchange. Our other company does use gmail, so I’m not totally ignorant to it. Yet, I find what I’m able to do with it very limited compared to exchange. Plus, we use a project management application called Newforma that ties in heavily with Outlook and Exchange for email filing. Some of that functionality would be lost if our email services were not on-premesis. From a cost perspective, how small does your user base have to be before a cloud email solution becomes cheaper than Exchange (sure you have to buy Exchange, pay me to maintain it, yadda, yadda.. But you’re already paying me…).

One of the biggest caveats I can see to publics cloud services is internet connectivity. Many very small businesses have very low end internet connectivity (DSL, cable), at east where I live (not us, we have 20 Mbps dedicated fiber). Such internet connections are not very robust, have slow upstream speeds, and can be flaky. If you lose connectivity, or your connection has problems, your cloud experience is going to suffer.

Our small company is very heavily dependent on our technology. We don’t draw on paper, we don’t fill out inspection reports on paper, and we don’t even use regular digital cameras to take inspection pictures (we have a Filemaker based inspection and project picture system that runs on iPads). To me it is crucial that I have direct access to those applications and their data, that my users can be close to them, and that I have total control over them. We won’t be moving to the public cloud anytime soon. Does that mean others might not benefit from it. Of course not.

I firmly believe that an organization should not have enterprise grade IT assets without someone to properly manage them. Such things can be unruly and complex if not cared for properly. That is what I really liked about VMWare’s new EVO:Rail product they announced today. From a simplicity standpoint, this is an absolutely perfect fit for small companies looking to build a datacenter. However I fear that when I call Dell in a couple weeks to see how much it costs , I’m going to be disappointed. However, that’s a rant I’ve made far too many times.

So what are your thoughts?

Folks Like Us August 23, 2014

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I’m flying on a plane right now to Phoenix. Next stop is San Francisco for my 4th VMworld. As I pondered how to get the most out of my experience this year, I decided to send out a tweet asking for advice on the matter. Well, as I typed a better idea came to mind. I thought, “this is what I’ve been missing. This is what has kept me from being consistent.” Simply put, I’ve not made an honest effort to reach the right people. Most of my recent blog posts, on this blog anyway, have been somewhat self deprecating, mostly due to the fact that I don’t feel like what I’m doing is relevant. Thus, I put all this down and leave it alone. I only become a blogger again at #vmworld time. I get the feeling that no one is in the same boat as me in the whole IT world. Which is complete and utter crap, because I know at least a few people personally who are.

So I tweeted “this year at #vmworld I want to meet SMB IT homies like me. Where my Lone Ranger IT Managers with less than 100 users at!?”. And that’s what I want. I know that out of the 20,000 some odd people in attendance at VMworld that there HAS to be guys with jobs similar to mine. You know who you are. Holler at me. The internet, the virtualization community, and the world needs a place for our kind, and we can build it together…. Dang, that sounded inspirational..

Left in the Dust August 21, 2014

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Last year at the VMunderground party I recall standing around a table awkwardly struggling to make conversation. It was going well, but as more people gathered around this table – IT people from big city governments, service providers, and large businesses, the conversation turned to things that I’ve never heard of and may never get any exposure to. I had nothing to add to the conversation. Granted, Working for a technologically well endowed small business, I enjoy the benefit of being able to get my hands on technologies that many of my small business IT brethren don’t get a chance to ever touch. Still, each year around this time (that would be VMworld time), even though I wouldn’t trade my job for anything, I stop for a moment and consider all that I am missing out on because I am a small business IT manager.

I imagine that I’m in a race, or better, a group bike ride. I’m on my tricked out single speed Wal Mart bike, and everyone else is rolling on their Specializeds, Cervelos, Treks, Giants, and Bianchis (actually, that’s not imaginary, that’s real). It’s a no-drop ride, and no one is trying to leave anyone behind. Yet, due to the very nature of what’s involved, I get the feeling of being utterly left in the dust. I mean, these guys serve hundreds of users and maintain hundreds of VMs. At my last count, I have 38 users, and between our two companies I have about 30 VMs. However, this is not simply a matter of size. You see, with this size comes a new set of challenges and requirements, thus a more expansive set of tools with which to meet those challenges. Also, these larger organizations usually have more money and bigger IT budgets.

Quite often when I hear about, say, one of VMware’s new products, I can imagine a use case for it – until I see the price. At that point, I hang it up. It’s not going to happen. The advantage there is that I am forced to use my brain and find more creative and cost effective solutions to the same problems. Still, there are products and features that I’d love to put to use, but simply can’t (like storage vMotion… how many times could I have used that!). I understand that these companies have to make money, but I feel that in their efforts to cater to the large enterprises they leave us small businesses at somewhat of a loss when it comes to getting the most out of our IT assets.

A prime example that comes to mind is storage. Why, oh why is storage so expensive? Seriously? If I had to name the number one hindrance to small businesses in going all virtual, it would be storage. There was a ray of hope not too long ago by means of a certain software defined storage vendor. Their product is amazing! You build a server and load their storage OS on it. As long as you use hardware on their HCL, you can even buy support. Their product leverages RAM and SSDs for caching resulting in some insanely fast performing storage. Now, they’ve ditched their old HCL in favor of a reference architecture that includes a very small selection of servers, JBODs, disks, and controllers, thus pricing their solution out of reach for many small businesses. I actually use this storage platform for our other company, and was going to use it for our main data center. However, in a phone conversation with one of this company’s representatives (a super nice guy who took a fair amount of time to talk to me) I was informed that they were moving more towards focusing on large enterprises and away from small business. I looked elsewhere for storage.

Another very large storage vendor (I’m not naming names on purpose here) wanted $91,000.00 for a storage array to suit my requirements. I laughed. My boss laughed. Let’s get one thing straight – most small businesses will never, ever, ever spend that much money on anything. Ever.  I did eventually happen upon the right solution for the right price. However, the price of said solution would still be prohibitive enough that many small companies would simply opt not to virtualize. After all, you still have to buy servers, switches and VMWare licensing.

I apologize for going off on a storage rant there. That’s been on my mind for a while. The point was that the cost of many of these technologies causes the careers of many of us in the SMB world to become stagnant compared to our big IT counterparts. Please don’t take that to mean that we small businesses are broke, poor, or struggling – quite the opposite, but we still have to make sound choices relevant to our business’ goals. However, cost certainly isn’t the only issue.

While cost may be one of the larger hindrances for small business IT, valid use cases would be another big one. Although, these two really go hand in hand. Many times, I’ll go through a list of features for a product, and from a practicality standpoint, we simply don’t need any of them. This becomes a double edged sword for the IT person making these decisions because on the one hand, you have to choose the right products and services that fit your business and your environment and your budget. On the other hand, though, you, as an IT person who desires to further his or her career, quite often miss out on the opportunity to be exposed to technologies that can potentially enhance your skill set and make you more valuable as an IT person.

And so, each year as I scroll through the schedule builder for VMWorld, making sure I build a schedule that is pertinent to my goals as IT manager for my company, I bypass a good many sessions that I’m sure are packed with great content, but that I struggle to see how they relate to my job with my current company (who is paying for me to go to VMWorld).  It is for that reason that even though I have had an amazing IT career so far, I sometimes feel like I’m being left in the dust.

In closing, I’d like to ask, do any of you reading this have a similar experience (or a different one for that matter)? I’d love to hear about it. Does anyone else feel like an oddball in a group of people with the same job as you?

 

Administering a Windows Network on a Mac January 9, 2014

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This is my first post in a while. A few months ago, I made a commitment not to let this blog die again, and I plan to follow through on that commitment. However, rather than post just to be posting, I feel that I should not post anything unless it is worth posting.

I know this post has nothing really to do with virtualization, but rather more to do with “other tech goodness” as mentioned in my blog header.

For over a year now, my travel companion for work has been a MacBook Air. Even though I administer a PC network, I’ve found the MacBook to be a capable laptop when I need to do something beyond what can be done quickly and easily on my iPad. Still, even when I’m using my laptop, I spend much of the time remoted into a PC. I have for some time wondered if I could use a Mac to do my day to day work, but never really entertained the idea much further than that. That is, until a few days ago when one of my bosses told me that he wants his next work computer to be a Mac.

This boss of mine uses Filemaker a great deal, which he claims is “just better” on a Mac. He made further arguments that he never uses AutoCAD anymore, and that if there were a Windows program he needed, he would use Parallels. He prefaced the whole conversation stating that it would probably make me mad, but honestly, I saw no problem with it. This got my gears turning – could I use a Mac to administer my Windows network? There was only one way to find out.

 The Test Subject

I brought my 2008 Mac Pro from home to the office. I needed a desktop Mac so I could run my dual monitors and install it at my desk, thus forcing me to use it. I pilfered a hard drive from an old server, popped into my mac Pro, and loaded a fresh copy of Mavericks on it. I knew I there was no way around running certain Windows programs (like Newforma, Ajera, and some of my phone system admin software), so being the VMWare fanboy I am, I bought a copy of VMWare Fusion 6. My mac was ready for action!

 Joining The Domain and File Sharing

There are many articles on the inter webs about joining a Mac to a Windows domain, so I won’t go into specifics here. I did, however, have to take one further step. After Mac OS made the mobile account for my domain account, I had to log out, then log in to the local admin account, and make my domain account an administrator on the computer. Otherwise, I noticed certain things would not work correctly.

Our company uses our file server a LOT. Suffice it to say, I would need a good way to have access to our network “drives” easily on the MAC. To do this, I had to temporarily enable the feature in finder preferences that shows mounted network servers on the desktop. Once the shares show up on the desktop, I made aliases to each of them so that when the computer restarts, there will be a quick way to get back to the shares. I then disabled showing the network shares on the desktop to avoid having duplicates of everything.

 Server Administration and RDP

On Windows I am used to being to able to run the server admin tools (like ADUC, WSUS admin console, DNS admin, etc..) locally on my Windows desktop. I knew that this wasn’t going to happen on the Mac. Instead, if I needed to use one of these tools, I’d RDP into one of the servers and use the tool from there. For example, if I need to use ADUC, I can just remote into the domain controller.

For RDP I used Microsoft’s RDP client that’s now available on the app store. The old RDP client sucked, but this new one works very well. The RDP client allows the user to build a list of all of your remote servers. From there, it is a matter of double clicking on the server’s name to get into it.

Nearly all of my servers reside on VMWare vSphere. In the past administering vSphere with a Mac would have been difficult. However, now, since the release of vSphere 5.5, administering vSphere from a Mac is no problem! The preferred way to administer vSphere no is to use the web client. In Mac OS, Chrome or Firefox is required since the server consoles use HTML 5.

 VMWare Fusion

VMWare Fusion is the Mac equivalent to VMWare Workstation (or similar anyway). Basically, in this scenario, I loaded a copy of Windows 7 in a VM in Fusion, joined it to the domain, and loaded my Windows-only applications on it. Fusion has a cool mode called “Unity” that presents the Windows application’s windows as though they are running natively in Mac OS.

 Office

I have a copy of Office for Mac from my Technet account. What can I say? It’s Office.

 Other Observations

The only real issues I ran into were minor application specific things. We are an engineering firm, and I’ve noticed that we run some weird software compared to some “normal” companies. The applications ran fine in Fusion, but in particular there was application, Newforma, that I had one issue with.

Newforma is a project management program, and part of its functionality is that it allows easy filing and searching of project related emails. It does the filing via an Outlook plug-in. This plug-in, obviously, won’t work in the Mac version of Outlook (since it is for Windows). Also, Newforma relies on Office being installed in order to render content from Microsoft Office documents. So, unless I were to install Office in my Fusion VM, this functionality is broken, and it would be overkill, to me to have to copies of Office installed.

Conclusion

Overall, my experiment went very well. If all the PCs in the world caught on fire, and I had to manage my network with a Mac, it would be totally doable. Plus this has given my an excellent point of reference for how to integrate a Mac into my network in case my boss makes good on his plan to get a Mac.

Of course, I could have just P2V’d my Windows box, put the View agent on it, ran the view client on my Mac and called it a day… but what fun would that have been?

What about you? Any of you sys admins using Macs regularly?

Holla!

VDP Installation Pitfalls October 28, 2013

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I had some other topics I wanted to write about, but they elude me at present. I do recall that whatever they were, as well as what I’ve written here today will have been done at the expense of potentially making myself look like an idiot. Regardless, my purpose here is to help others – not to make myself look awesome. It is to that end that I believe I will start writing more about my mistakes and how I overcame them in hopes that it will help someone else avoid the same mistakes.

I recently found the occasion to implement vSphere Data Protection in one of my environments – and, hey, why not? It comes with nearly every edition of vSphere (even the lowly Essentials Plus – the one I use). Our other company’s environment needs a good backup solution, so I decided to give VDP a whirl. Once set up, it’s dead simple to use. However, I ran into snags at nearly every step of the way during installation. The installation isn’t dificult, per se, but there are some considerations to make to ensure everything goes smoothly. What follows is a sort of quick and dirty guide based on some things I gleaned from various KB articles and forum posts.

DNS

Make sure you create an A record ahead of time in DNS for whatever you plan on naming your VDP appliance. Also, make sure you have a reverse lookup zone for the subnet the appliance will be on. I didn’t have a reverse lookup zone in DNS, and I got stopped during the network part of the appliance configuration. Once I created the reverse lookup zone, I was able to move on.

Naming of the VM

When deploying the OVA template for VDP, you will be asked to provide a name for the VM. You must name the VM the same thing as the FQDN you plan on giving it. Otherwise, during the vCenter registration part of the configuration, you will get some rubbish about your appliance not being found in vCenter. This happened to me. I tried to simply rename the VM, but that did not work. You must give it the right name from the very start.

Disk Sizing

Even though I gave the VMDKs for VDP a size below what my data store will actually hold, it kept giving me errors about there not being enough storage space available. The only way I was able to continue was to switch to thin provisioning. I know the risks involved in using thin provisioning, but I don’t anticipate running out of space – this is a very small environment. Although I would be interested to know why my 1.2TB data store wouldn’t hold a 1TB disk. Perhaps there is some overhead that I am unaware of. If you know, I’d love for you to share it with me!

Conclusion

Admittedly, I have become very bad about not reading documentation all the way through lately. Perhaps I could have been spared some grief if I would have just RTFM. Nonetheless, the installation process was fairly straightforward, save for these few snags. I’m happy to report that VDP is backing up all of my VMs rather nicely now! What are your experiences with VDP?

A Tale of Two vCenters – Managing Multiple vCenters Without Linked Mode September 19, 2013

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Okay, it’s really more a tale of three vCenters, but I couldn’t resist using that as a title.. Also, this may be old news to most people, but it’s the most interesting thing I’ve done lately. Plus I couldn’t find exact guidance on exactly how to do this for my situation – I had to piece together how to do this from multiple sources.

For several years, I’ve had only one vCenter to manage. However, a couple of years ago, one of my Bosses started another
company. Recently, his company has done increasingly more business, and while working with him on a job we were doing, I
suggested that this company have its own datacenter. The next thing I know, I have two AD domains, three vCenters (one for
our main company, one for the other company’s server workloads, and one for the other company’s VDI), and a fourth vCenter
on the way (for a DR site). I decided it was time to find a way to manage them all from a single pane of glass. (more…)

What I Learned at VMWorld – Wednesday and Thursday August 31, 2013

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I found myself too busy or exhausted to do any blogging on Wednesday or Thursday. Plus, I had several work interruptions that hindered me from blogging and even attending sessions. Thus is the life of the lone IT Manager. Since I’m waiting until now (Saturday) to write about these two days, I will combine them in one post. (more…)

What I Learned at VMWorld 2013 – Tuesday August 28, 2013

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I had a jam packed day of sessions yesterday. Today’s schedule is packed as well, but I might skip some sessions. After all, coming here gives me access to all of the session content at VMWorld.com when I get home. I am going to take to the opportunity to walk around and see if I can get into some conversations, which are truly the valuable part of the show anyway.

Right now, everything I saw and heard yesterday is a giant, swirling soup of confusion. I attended sessions that contain content that either doesn’t pertain to me, or is perhaps a bit over my head. As always, sometime later, when I need it, this stuff will come up. I’ll say “oh yeah, I remember that from VMWorld. I’ll get into some of the high points of the day a bit later, but I’ve been forced to think of where I (and others like me) fit in along this road to “the cloud”. Here’s what I’ve noticed: (more…)

What I Learned Today at VMWorld 2013- Monday August 27, 2013

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I suppose I should start calling this series “What I learned Yesterday” since I don’t get around to it until the next morning. I fully intended to get it done last night, but I decided to take a nap before I went running, and ended up sleeping all night instead. I digress. Now I’m well rested and ready to go.

There were only two sessions that interested me – VMWare Virtual SAN and Mythbusting Goes Virtual. I also attended the general session/keynote. Without further ado, on to the good stuff! (more…)

What I learned Today at VMWorld – Sunday August 26, 2013

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Okay, so Sunday isn’t really an official “day” of learning at VMWorld, nonetheless, I promised to give a run-down of what I did/learned each day, and Sunday will be no exception. (more…)

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