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Virtualization – One Year Later August 11, 2011

Posted by audiomatron in Uncategorized.
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It was right at one year ago that I was placing the order with Dell for our servers, storage and software for my company’s current virtual infrastructure. It was an exciting time. I had for some time wanted to get more heavily into virtualization. I was told to make this network mine by one of my bosses, and I had a clear idea of the direction in which I wanted to take it. However, to do so in a traditional sense would have been very cost-prohibitive. I knew that virtualization was the only way I could transform this once run-of-the-mill small business network into something truly robust and versitile. Finally, a business venture by my company’s leadership necessitated such a solution. Now my servers are over 90% virtual, and I haven’t looked back. We’ve all read and heard about the benefits of virtualization, but I’d like to explore it from my own perspective. What has virtualization allowed me, the lone small business IT admin, to accomplish?

Server Role Segregation

This is the biggest one for me. It is common practice in small business to lump all of your services onto one or two servers, on the same operating system. It is not uncommon to see apps like Exchange running on a domain controller, or file servers that also host intranet sites, financial management software, and Blackberry Enterprise Servers (just as an example). This is a bad practice, and my network was no different. This practice had been perpetuated long before I began working here, and as “the new guy” I was reluctant to rock the boat too much to attempt to change anything – especially if it would cost much money.

Suffice to say, this was a very inconvenient situation. If I wanted to work on any one of these network services, it would require taking down several other mission critical assets as well. Much of my maintenance had to be done at night or on the weekend. Plus, having multiple services running on the same OS simultaneously can cause interference between applications. Not to mention if the application depends on AD, and you have it running on a domain controller, it’s likely that the app might not function correctly if its services try to start before AD’s services.

Now, with virtualization, I can easily follow best practices and segregate my server roles. If I need to work on BES, for example, I can take it down, and all of the other apps/services keep right on working in their own little virtual environments. All of my network services now run independently of each other, and yet on the same hardware!

Server Deployment

Before virtualization, if we needed a new server for something, the process was a long one – order the server, wait for the server to come in, load the OS and the app, patch the server, move the server to the server room, plug up the server, etc. Now, if we decide we need a new server, I deploy one from one of my already patched templates in just a few mouse clicks. The provisioning process for servers has gone from one that takes weeks to one that takes an hour.

Testing

Sometimes, the only real way to know if something is going to work is to try it. Unfortunately, small businesses don’t have servers just lying around. Before this time last year, if we wanted to test some new server based application, I’d either have to attempt to scrape up some half decent hardware to build a makeshift server, or we’d have to buy a server. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that saying, “let’s buy a server and test this thing out”  doesn’t always go over well. Now, with vSphere, I can built a test server very quickly, try out the product in question, and if we like it, we keep the server running and buy the software, if not, I delete the server.

Availability

Or to be more specific, High Availability, as in VMware High Availability (HA). This is one of the most heavily touted features of vSphere, but I don’t believe one can truly appreciate what it does until one sees it in action. A couple of weeks ago, in the middle of the afternoon during some bad weather, lightning caused the power to flicker in such a way that caused one of my UPSes (which all normally work fine) to drop it’s load. Two of my three ESXi hosts went down. I frantically tried to get into my remaining host to see what was going on. By the time I connected my vSphere client to the ESXi host, my entire workload was already up and running on the host. This brings me to my next point:

Consolidation

It is a beautiful thing to see my entire workload of 17 virtual servers all running smoothly on one $3,000.00 (give or take) server. That’s what took place after the aforementioned HA event. If you look at a traditional physical server running one OS, you’ll likely notice that it is grossly underutilized. Virtualization has allowed me to utilize my server hardware more efficiently in every way. Beautiful.

Backup/Data Recovery

The fact that Virtual Machines are actually just a collection of files makes it easy to not only back up data, but to actually back up entire machines! There are several good backup options for VMware out there. I use VMware Data Recovery (VDR), which comes with all vSphere packages except Essentials. Granted, I still have to rely on traditional file backup to backup our file servers (I don’t have enough good storage to back them up with VDR yet), but all of my application servers are backed up with VDR. I backed these VMs up for quite a while wondering if I would ever need to use the backups. Well, I got my chance to do just that.

One morning, several of my users were complaining about not being able to print. I checked the print server, and found that the spooler had crashed. I couldn’t get the spooler service to stay up for more than a few seconds before it would crash again. Being that printing is a mission critical function in our business, I decided not to spend too much time troubleshooting. The server worked last week didn’t it? There’s no data on it, just printers. I simply used VDR to very quickly and easily restore the print server to its state a few days prior. A few minutes later, we were back up and printing.

Also worth mentioning is the experiment I did to test the disaster recovery capabilities of VDR. You can read about it here.

Conclusion

Simply put, I could not do things the way I’m doing them now without VMware. I could not do things correctly or nearly as efficiently without virtualization. I could not run the workload I’m running without vSphere. I am amazed by what this technology can do.

As I mentioned earlier in this artilce, we’ve all heard about the benefits of virtualization, but sometimes it’s nice to be able to put a name to a face, so to speak. You may read about “High Availability”, but what does that mean to us, the IT admins that will be implementing all of this. It is, in my opinion, better to be able to see real world examples of what people have been able to do with this technology rather than to simply read about it in a whitepaper or brochure. I hope I have done an adequate job of sharing what these concepts have meant to me during this wild ride we call virtualization.

Do you have any virtualization stories to tell?

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