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4/29/2009
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Rolling Review Wrap-Up: Server Virtualization

Five offerings show technology is ready for prime time whatever your OS or price point.

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Virtualization has emerged from the obscurity of the test lab and development workstation to mainstream production and beyond. The benefits are real, and some companies already are testing the next tier of virtualization performance. If you're like many IT shops--particularly, IT shops in smaller companies--you probably feel behind the times when it comes to adopting data center virtualization.

The real news is, you're not. A recent InformationWeek survey of 348 business technology pros showed that roughly 47% of organizations with fewer than 1,000 employees had not yet virtualized. Roughly 23% of these facilities were planning deployments. Furthermore, interviews with IT managers from smaller shops show anecdotally that small and midsize businesses are just starting on the physical-to-virtual conversion path.

Like their larger-business counterparts, smaller IT shops are wary of placing multiple critical systems on one host, and with good reason. Consolidating a number of legacy servers onto a single Microsoft Hyper-V or VMware ESXi host may make short-term financial sense, but it also introduces single-system points of failure for all guests residing on that host. Concerns about deployment, management, capacity planning, and production outages haven't been left behind with the 20th century.

Good planning can mitigate concerns about putting all eggs in one virtualized basket. An appropriately sized, robust, centralized storage system; three or more host servers; and a bit of redundant networking often yield a more resilient environment than many smaller shops have. When existing servers and gear can be repurposed to VM host platforms, the cost/benefit numbers look even better. Add an inexpensive--or free--hypervisor, live migration, and basic management tools, and the business case begins to write itself. Tasks that are arduous in the physical world become routine in virtualized space; capacity planning, patch management, high availability, and disaster recovery are much simpler to master once servers make the physical-to-virtual move.

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Armed with the belief that virtualization technology is both ready for prime time and appropriately complex for nonexpert deployment, we tested major and minor players in the hypervisor arena. For this Rolling Review, we set up our test bed as if we were a small IT shop looking to consolidate workflow and migrate from older physical servers to the virtual world. We assumed that administrators would be familiar with Windows server management and generally comfortable with basic Linux administration. We also brought in IT admins with limited virtualization experience to get a fresh perspective on the platforms tested.

We were pleasantly surprised every step of the way. In tests, virtual machine performance occasionally exceeded the premigration results of older physical servers. With planning, we could consolidate dozens of low-utilization VMs across our four older boxes. And once the cluster of virtualization hosts and centralized storage was up and running, we found the day-to-day care and feeding of virtualized servers was much less of a hassle than the drudgery of riding herd on traditional physical servers.

Real-World Analyist Assessment: Virtualization
(click image for larger view)

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