Cat5bird Seat

Virtual Bliss

VMWare and Microsoft are pitted against each other in the virtual server space and we benefit by not having to pay much up front. In fact, we pay nothing.

Have you looked into virtualizing your servers yet? There are plenty of good reasons to do so: By letting you consolidate multiple virtual servers on to a single physical server, virtualization can save you money, and by giving you a way to quickly redeploy a running server from failing hardware to good hardware, virtualization can increase reliability. This year, we got another good reason to evaluate server virtualization technology: The entry-level price suddenly plummeted all the way to zero.

VMware started the change back in February with the announcement of their new VMware Server product, a successor to the previous VMware GSX Server. With the ability to run multiple server operating systems on a single box, 64-bit support, virtual SMP, and a price of "free," VMware Server marked a big change in pricing. In what could only be viewed as a purely reactive move, Microsoft announced in April that the latest rev of their server product, Microsoft Virtual Server 2005 R2, was immediately available for free as well.

VMware is clearly hoping to bring people in the door and then upsell them to service and support offerings, as well as to their more expensive ESX product (which offers superior management capabilities if you’re running a datacenter filled with virtual servers). Microsoft, on the other hand, is doing its best to make sure that an increasingly-scrappy competitor doesn’t eat any more market share. Never mind just losing the market for virtualization software; VMware has also been aggressively promoting "virtual appliances," pre-built virtual machines that anyone can download and use for things like safe Web surfing or setting up a firewall or router. Not surprisingly, these appliances are all based on free (that is, not Windows) operating systems.

But never mind the motivations of the corporate giants involved; what does this mean for you, the harassed network administrator with too darned many servers to manage already? The key question you have to ask yourself is whether you’re making good use of your server hardware, or whether it’s running at a very low load. In many shops, it’s the latter, simply because it’s become impractical to buy computers that are sized to the applications that they run. As a simplified example, a small shop might find that the CRM application and the Exchange server can’t run on the same computer because they both want to use the same obscure TCP/IP port for some reason. And yet giving them each their own generic server results in two servers running at, say, 15-percent load. Both of those servers sit in your data center day in and day out, eating power, requiring backups, and making you worry about failed hardware.

That’s where virtualization for server consolidation comes in. Migrate both of those servers to virtual machine images, install the virtual server product of your choice on one of the physical machines (I’m partial to VMware myself, but the Microsoft product is good too), and bring up both VMs on the same box. Now instead of two servers at 15 percent, you’ve got one running at perhaps 40 percent (counting the overhead of the virtualization software). And you’ve probably cut your power consumption in half, made backups easier, and throw in an extra server in the closet to serve as an emergency replacement server if anything goes wrong.

For many companies this was a good deal even when you had to pay for the virtualization infrastructure, but it’s even better now that you can get it for free.

There are other benefits to this strategy as well. Once you start thinking of your servers as a software image (rather than as hardware running software), they become easier to manage. Disaster recovery, for example, becomes a matter of relocating a copy of that image to another site and booting it up in a copy of the virtual host; you don’t have to worry about exactly matching the original host hardware. Some organizations may even investigate using those leftover servers to host virtual desktops, in chasing the age-old dream of centralized clients under IT department control (though I wouldn’t recommend going back down that particular rabbit hole myself).

The bottom line is simple: Here’s some free software that can make your life easier. It really doesn’t get a whole lot better than that.

Have you started virtualizing yet? Or are you still insisting on "one server, one box"? Let me know at

About the Author

Mike Gunderloy, MCSE, MCSD, MCDBA, is a former MCP columnist and the author of numerous development books.

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