(Really) Small Office Environments

Date February 2, 2009

Many thanks to Jeff Hengesbach for this blog entry!

There are a lot of very small businesses. I'm thinking about 20-30 or fewer people, and likely only 1 or maybe 2 servers. There are a few reason this interests me. First, in the past I've done 'side' work in a few of these environments. And secondly, every time I enter a place of business of any sort, I'm always looking for technology and how it is being used. For the folks helping these smaller organizations out, I like to scale back some 'bigger' business concepts and show how they are advantageous for everyone.

The one thing that never ceases to amaze me, when I gain knowledge of it, is the age of the oh-so-critical systems these companies rely upon. My background and philosophy on physical (x86) servers life-cycles is 3-4 years and replace. I follow this cycle for multiple reasons: 1) OEM warranties are cost effective in this window, 2) Always run warrantied equipment, 3) Computational power leaps, storage costs plummet in 3-4 years, 4) It fits a good window for OS / application upgrades and, 5) Equipment is not that expensive in these environments. Of course for large / complicated systems these arguments don't hold as much water.

Over the past few years, I've seen 2 organizations lose servers from aged hard drives and other major component failures. They thankfully both had good backups, but where still out a bunch of time during the replace and rebuild process. If you think disk mirroring / system mirroring is a backup solution, please read this article on Slashdot.org.

The direction I'm heading with this is to ask small shop IT to consider the use of virtualization. On a small scale the solutions are virtually free, pick the one your expertise best fits. Consider the cost of a down system seriously - it will happen. A Virtual Machine image can be pulled from backup(choose your media wisely), up and running on PC bought from the local big box store in very short order(depending on your VM solution). Get your replacement server, copy the VM over and the case is closed. No Windows hardware driver issues, Authoritative AD restores, configuration oversights, etc. Virtualization will also make for a near painless experience when it comes to keeping physical servers upgraded.

If your small office IT support isn't up to speed with Virtualization, ask them to get there or find new help. The benefits are too great and easy to reap to let them pass by.

  • Will

    As someone who does a fair amount of consulting for small business I find this an intriguing idea. A couple of thoughts.

    I'm not sure the tipping point for replacement of server hardware is so soon. Three years is certainly quick. $3-5K for a server spread over 3 years may not seem like a lot but if you stretch that to 6 years you've halved your cost, and certainly a good server can run that long, you'll likely end up replacing drive(s) but that is what RAID is good for.

    I've had one experience in the last year with a businness with one server and 10 client pc's, a RAID 5 system that lost two drives at the same time, on an MS Windows SBS2003 system, and business continued handily with client cached email and files, web access to new emails at the ISP, and using the backup set from the NT backup utility in Windows, got the server up and running with new mail order drives in 48 hours.

    Now, were this a VM how would I have benefited? Not being familiar with virtualization I assume I could have run the server on a say a decent performing pc hardware for a couple of days while the new drives came in? Then simply move the image back to the repaired server?

    I think that could benefit say a two or three server company more--I'm skeptical that the pc (which most small business don't have spares laying around, nor would want to shell out $$ for) could handle the performance hit of synch'ing files, running exchange, AD, ip services etc for the 10 pc clients. With more servers then the VM could be moved to a server class machine.

    There's certainly some required expertise involved in setting up the VM. Fun and attainable for me! But if I'm gone how do small businesses find skilled VM practitioners? I think many small shops depend on the nephew or son in law or local small it support business so this would be a paradigm shift in the way they see support.

    These are probably all very surmountable challenges and I'm highly intrigued by the idea and believe there is great value in it!

    SBS 2003 may not be the best candidate as it needs a certain horsepower to perform. I can imagine different shops that use POP email and whose server is primarily say print services and file storage, they could get a couple of servers and manage something like this quite nicely.

  • shokk

    Will,
    There are always cases that will not be virtualization candidates, but if we are talking about an old whitebox from 5 years ago, chances are the high performance you are talking about is not really all that high compared to today's systems. You should be able to specify resource shares and reservations to guarantee that the virtualized system has the resources it needs to perform. Where you come ahead in all this is that with the newer, more powerful hardware, you have the flexibility to give that virtualized system more resources than it had on the old platform. And when you upgrade that VMWare box in a few years, you will just have to migrate the VM to the new box and turn it on since everything underneath has already been abstracted for you. And then bump up the resources as needed.

    The only thing stopping you from going on forever with this is the vendor support for the guest OS. If you're still running Windows 2000 in 5 more years, you will likely be way out of support with Microsoft and hosting many security holes and bugs.

  • jeffatrackaid

    One key consideration is what is the function of these servers. I am a big proponent of getting servers out of the closet and into a data center. I am sure that is due, in part, to how I make my living - managing IT infrastructure in data centers.

    For email, web, and some database operations, leasing a dedicated system with a reputable company could be a sound business decision. You are not responsible for the hardware, you get much better internet connectivity, power redundancy, etc.

    I work on the Linux side, so many of our clients are doing web-based operations. On the MS side, I am sure there are a lot of apps that would not work well with a remotely hosted infrastructure.

    I think the value of virtualization to a small business comes only if it is properly managed. I don't think I would advise doing a one-time virtualization setup and then walk away. At least on the Linux side, there is stil a lot of work to be done under the hood -- even with new hardware.

    The current value I see is in replacing 2-3 legacy bits of hardware with a single server and possible reap better performance. In the current economy, getting budget approval for a single server may go a lot further than replacing several.

  • Will

    Yeah, the more I think about this the more I like the idea. I'm trying to imagine a migration process from a physical machine to a vm and I suppose in many cases it would simply amount to a restore of a backup to the vm once the guest os is set up?

    You mentioned some free or low cost vm software can you point me to some examples?

    Thanks for the article, very intriguing.

  • Bill

    VMWare's ESX software is currently free. Citrix's Xen software is also free. Microsoft Hypervisor comes with some versions of Windows Server 2008. Make sure you check hardware requirements before playing with some of the stuff. If you want to get familiar with the idea of virtualization, you can download a trial copy of VMWare Workstation.

  • Sean

    Will,

    The best way to do it would be to use the VMConverter product from VMWare. They have a free version and a paid-for version. Both can convert a physical machine to a VM. I've used it a few times to bring our workstation image into a VM for testing purposes.

    ESXi and Citrix XenServer Express are both free if you want baremetal hypervisors, or you can get VMWare Server or the Linux Xen package if you want to operate with the overhead of an OS.

  • Graffiti Knight

    Windows Hyper-V Server is free, and based off the Hyper-V hypervisor found in Windows Server 2008. I've been using it in production for over six months now, and it has been great. Unfortunately the old whitebox for us is a voicemail server running NT4 with a dual-port modem card that so far just isn't able to be virtualized. It's gone as soon as we move to VoIP though.

  • JeffHengesbach

    @Will

    I think the others here have provided good leads to the possible VM Hosting solutions. In terms of simplicity for backing up and restore keep in mind the backup and restore must be accomplished by the host using the restore medium available.

    VMWare ESXi would probably not be the best solution because it natively does not have such capability. Someone comfortable with Windows would be well off with Server 2008 & Hyper-V as the host. On an existing Win2K3 server, VMWare's "VMWare Server" would work as well. For the linux savvy, go with Xen or the "VMWare Server" product.