“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” –Arthur C. Clarke

Looking back at the last decade, virtualization is the only business information technology I’d describe as being like magic.  This statement isn’t offered as hyperbole, without explaining the technical details, it does seem more impressive than pulling a rabbit out of hat.  Server, storage, and network virtualization changes IT dramatically—it undergirds most of the significant trends in the field, both real and hyped.

Although the technology has been around for decades, I still encounter clients, prospects, and partners who don’t understand virtualization.  Mostly because servers are something they don’t think about much– that’s my job.  Upon describing the concept, I usually receive one of two responses: near instant interest followed by enthusiasm or the bored look which I sometimes deserve when enthusiastically explaining trivia like:

  1.  highlighting offensive clauses in end user licensing agreements
  2. exactly what an ampere is and why people should care, or
  3. stupid pivot table tricks.  

So what is virtualization in ten words or less?  Virtualization abstracts the software environment from the underlying physical hardware.  I managed with ten words, but now you’re already feeling sleepy and thinking about finding a cup of coffee to revive yourself– it is that word abstract, isn’t it?   I’ll try again– what does this abstraction mean to you?  With virtualization you can take a physical server and install multiple and varied operating systems and applications instances and have them actively run in isolation of each other on that single host server.   For example, you could install four copies of Windows 2008, two copies of Redhat Linux 7.1, and MS-DOS 6.1 running on the same physical server with shared storage and network resources allocated to each guest operating system.  That’s a neat trick, but why would you want to do it?

Typically, virtualization is sold as way to reduce costs by more efficiently using server hardware resources, resulting in fewer capital costs associated with hardware purchases and savings associated with ongoing reoccurring electrical and cooling costs being reduced.   These server consolidation opportunities spark significant interest– what technical or budget minded person doesn’t appreciate the beauty of something more efficient?  Who wouldn’t appreciate the idea of reducing the number of physical servers from 12 to 2?   However, focusing only on efficiency misses the magic. 

As someone who is feverishly working to avoid system failure, the real magic of virtualization is its ability to reduce risk of failure by offering truly jaw-dropping opportunities to provide immediate uptime in cases of routine mechanical failure.  That’s the magic:  watching a server fail with six guest servers and fail over instantly to another host server without interruption.  Compare this with some physical server failure scenarios where restoring from yesterday’s tapes on a different server takes eighteen very stressful hours— don’t forget to factor in the hours of lost productivity, data lost since the last back-up job, cost of the restore, and the drama of that level of uncertainty.

That’s just part of the magic.  Understand that often a bigger threat than dramatic mechanical failure, is often routine, sometimes seemingly trivial changes to the system environment– perhaps a routine security update, a new application, or, an updated printer driver.  These changes can have undocumented and unintended consequences resulting in a system interruption as dramatic as if you had spilled a cup of a coffee in your server.  Virtualization addresses this daily threat, by offering affordable and flexible staging environments to test system changes before rolling those changes into production environments.  Testing becomes a truly affordable option for nearly all IT operations, allowing improved flexibility to accommodate changes with a greater certainty of maintaining excellent service.

There are a lot of technical details which I’ll address in next month’s entry.  However, don’t wait until then if you’re thinking about upgrading servers or purchasing new equipment, talk to us immediately!  We can advise you on what to buy with an eye towards accommodating server virtualization and work with you to implement a plan to consolidate and to improve your disaster recovery prospects.

Thinsolutions currently supports VMware’s vSphere, ESX, and ESXi products and Microsoft’s Hyper-V, in a variety of implementations and we’ve tested other products.   We can help balance the pros and cons of these products and a variety of scenarios.  The technology is solid, we’ve been supporting virtualized production environments for over four years, and the improvements come at surprisingly low licensing costs.

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