Small business embrace virtualisation

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This article appeared in the April 2010 issue of CRN magazine.

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Small business embrace virtualisation

The benefits of virtualisation were once restricted to the big end of town, but now even the smallest businesses can do more with less in a virtualised environment.

In its simplest form virtualisation is about consolidation - using fewer physical computers to run the same number of servers. Such cost-cutting might sound like bad news for the channel, but virtualisation actually offers smart channel players a platform on which to offer a wealth of value added services.

The flexibility of a virtualised server environment allows the channel to provide enterprise-grade remote management, high availability and disaster recovery services that were previously out of reach for many SMEs. In-house virtualisation can also act as a stepping stone to the cloud and hosted services.

Virtualisation can be tricky to explain, but it basically involves making one physical computer
act as if it is several computers.

These virtual computers can each run an independent operating system and interact with the world as if they are each a standalone physical computer.

Think of the traditional server room as a group of friends around a restaurant table. Each person gets one plate of food, regardless of how hungry they are. Some people will have food left over, while others will still be hungry. If someone wants more food, or an unexpected guest arrives, they need to pay for another meal - even though there's plenty of food elsewhere on the table. This is your typical small to medium business server room, where the physical computers can't easily share resources such as processing power or storage.

Virtualisation in a server room is the equivalent of ordering a banquet, with each person taking as much or as little food as they require. If one person is particularly hungry, everyone else can forgo a little of their food rather than ordering a new dish.

Better yet, if unexpected guests arrive the food can be easily redistributed without the need to pay for another meal. This way no-one goes hungry, food doesn't go to waste and the overall bill is lower than if everyone had ordered their own meal.

The consolidation aspect of virtualisation means you're immediately talking cost savings in terms of hardware, rack space, cooling and power consumption.

These savings can offer a 12- to 18-month return on investment, making it an attractive proposition for SMEs. Despite this, the true benefits of virtualisation for both SMEs and their channel partners revolve around reliability and flexibility, says Intelligent Business Research Services analyst Kevin McIsaac.

"For the channel, virtualisation really revolves around services. For starters you can perform an audit to see what the customer requires, then you can help them write an internal business case," McIsaac says.

"Then if you're smart you'll do the migration work for them as part of the rollout and then start working on their operational processes. This is where virtualisation's strengths really shine through.

"You say to the customer; ‘We've consolidated, we've got some benefits out of that and it's paid for itself in 12 to 18 months. Now we can talk about affordable disaster recovery and high availability - not just for one application but for every application that's part of the virtualised infrastructure'.

"Working in a virtualised environment on standard Intel hardware makes it cheap and easy to offer the kind of services that 10 years ago were only done with mainframes or high-end Unix boxes."

Have the right reasons
Like any project, virtualisation for its own sake is generally a bad idea - there needs to be a trigger within the business.

"That trigger might be a critical email server that's approaching end of life. Or perhaps an organisation is rolling out a new financial application, perhaps basic ERP for an SMB. That's often a really great place to start the virtualisation conversation. Another area might be around development and test infrastructure," says McIsaac.

Virtualisation cuts to the very heart of an organisation's IT infrastructure and tends to touch on almost every aspect of the business. As such, deploying virtualisation offers channel players an opportunity to go beyond merely selling hardware and instead gain a holistic view of their customers' business and strategic planning, says Rosemary Stark, Microsoft Australia's Windows Server and Infrastructure product manager.

"The opportunity really is to step away from it being an engagement to implement virtualisation, and towards a more strategic conversation with the customer about what it is they are they are trying to do with their business," says Stark.

"A number of our partners who service small business customers tell me that implementations are good to have but their bread and butter is really the managed service on the back end. Virtualisation allows them to provide fantastic managed services in terms of being able to monitor the environment, provision a new service or back up and restore.

"It also opens the door to talking to customers about hosted solutions. How much of their IT infrastructure is strategic and how much of it is just keeping the lights on? You have the opportunity to say; ‘look, rather than you running your email and web servers, why don't I do that for you? Here are the service levels that you can chose from'.

"Now you have a monthly billing cycle, which means a monthly relationship. Rather than the customer coming to you whenever they think they need something, you have a reason to regularly talk to the customer and maybe pick up further implementation or services work."

A competitive edge
When pitching a virtualisation solution to an SME client, the channel can focus not just on cost savings but also the competitive edge it can offer smaller businesses. The benefits of virtualisation such as high availability let smaller players enjoy enterprise-grade service, punching above their weight while retaining the responsiveness of a small business.

"When selling virtualisation, the channel can emphasise that it's a technology that allows a small business to act like a big business yet still remain nimble and agile," says virtualisation vendor VMware's Australian and New Zealand marketing director Peter Di Pietrantonio.

"As we work with customers, the big guys have more challenges to go through in terms of transforming their business. They've got years and years of computing technology to virtualise and it poses a large transformation project. Small businesses are much more nimble and they can recognise the benefits of virtualisation much more quickly.

"Small businesses face the challenges of growth and cost.

They may be looking to go after new business, or to grow part of their business, but the cost of IT systems to support this can be prohibitive.

"Virtualisation grants them the flexibility to pursue new growth opportunities, and growing customers can be lucrative customers for the channel. I think it's a real win-win situation for both the channel and for the SMEs."

Considering virtualisation is a key enabler for growth, any SME virtualisation solution must be designed to easily scale. Such scaling involves both the technology and the skill sets required to manage it, says Brian Pereira, CEO of Sydney-based IT services company Computer Networks, which has more than 300 SME customers using virtualisation. ?

"The key to channel success with virtualisation in the SME market comes down to a few things. One is flexible pricing. Another is developing an enterprise-grade environment that will scale nicely for the small to medium enterprise," says Pereira.

"Often an SME's move to virtualisation can be triggered by something like an ERP rollout, which naturally presents issues such as high availability and backup. It also requires room to grow, which presents the channel partner an opportunity to evaluate the business' existing infrastructure, as well as the level of support.

"Previously the customer may have never really thought about the implications of losing everything. Now we're talking about a mission critical system.

"They also may not have thought about what happens if their in-house tech guy is on leave, or their one-man-band tech support is unavailable. As the new solution scales up in size and importance, the level of support needs to scale - and that's where the channel partner can step in," says Pereira.

"Such a situation obviously presents a stepping stone to hosted solutions, also built around virtualisation. Server rooms often prove to be the biggest hurdle for many SMEs as the business grows from around five employees to more than 20. By having a virtual server room it becomes scalable without capital expense
or a larger IT department, yet it has the reliability the SME owner needs through a water tight service level agreement."

Capacity on demand
Mid-market service provider Brennan IT also offers its customers in-house virtualisation as well as hosted virtual solutions. Scalability is a critical component to any successful virtualisation implementation, agrees Gavin Camilleri, Brennan IT's project services manager.

"The ability to scale capacity on demand without more capital investment is one of the key reasons why virtualisation is so compelling for businesses both large and small," Camilleri says.

"A major virtualisation deployment could have a three-year or more return on investment. That means customers would look at including some overhead, on the understanding that the system could scale to meet all of their needs based on their best estimates for the coming years.

"We do a capacity scoping exercise where we engage with the customer, have a look at their existing environment and then go about sizing the solution. That extends to storage as well, as different applications require different tiers of storage and different levels of performance for their data.

"This initial scoping exercise is critical for channel partners. They need the skills to provide that level of analysis and due diligence, or they risk delivering a solution that isn't what the customer is after and may not even fit the purpose."

When people think about virtualisation they tend to think about servers, but virtualisation technologies spread to cover storage, desktop environments and even individual applications. Of these, virtualised storage is perhaps the key component if customers want to get the most from their virtualised environment.

Squeezing several virtual servers onto one physical computer can actually increase the risk to the business by putting all its eggs in one basket. As such, many virtual server environments consist of multiple machines - offering benefits such as load balancing and redundancy.

Virtualised storage is critical in such an environment, says Darren McCullum, who is storage vendor EMC's VMware business manager for Australia and New Zealand.

"If you look at the amount of horsepower being delivered in servers these days, virtualisation is very attractive because it rarely makes sense for an end customer to deploy a physical server with a single application.

"Of course to get the most out of virtualisation technology such as VMware you need at least two physical servers and the ability to move workloads between them in case of interruption. You can't get these sorts of features without shared storage," McCullum says.

"When businesses take a holistic view of their virtualised environment, they realise that storage virtualisation offers their data the same level of high availability as server virtualisation offers their servers. Our virtualised storage solutions are also designed to integrate tightly into a virtualised server environment such as VMware."

Reliability is critical
Storage reliability becomes a critical component of any significant virtualisation deployment, agrees Michael DeLandre, storage vendor NetApp's director of professional services in Australia and New Zealand.
"One of the key benefits of server virtualisation is high availability, but a storage failure could impact all of a customer's servers.

A storage system needs a high level of availability and resilience, as well as very robust backup and recovery methods and even the ability to replicate to another location. Such features are what virtualised storage is all about."
While virtual storage is a key component in a well-rounded virtualisation solution, unfortunately it can make the move to virtualisation cost prohibitive for smaller organisations. Once again, it's growing businesses that are most likely to get the value from such a solution.

"I don't think virtualisation is a panacea for all IT-related issues and concerns," says Chris Fydler, GM of systems integrator Oriel Technologies.

"Sometimes you've got a business that just needs two servers and I would find it hard to build a business case around creating a wholly managed virtual solution. We generally deal with businesses with 50 staff or more.

"To take advantage of the big benefits of virtualisation an organisation really needs to have shared storage, which means putting in a SAN or the like. Once you throw in the price of this storage, the value proposition can start to falter.

"Where it does make a sense is in growing organisations. If they move from 30 or 40 people to a hundred that requirement around servers increases and it often increases disproportionately to the head count," Fydler says. 

Virtualisation and the platform around it make it very easy for businesses to grow without major disruptions. It does that firstly by being able to provision servers very quickly; it's simple to spin up a new virtual server when you need it.

"Second, businesses become more aware of availability issues as they get bigger. They start to think about maintenance contracts and a higher level of support - which obviously presents opportunities for the channel.

"Finally I think virtualisation assists those smaller growing businesses because it enables any adds, moves and changes to happen on the fly without necessarily bringing the system down."

Removing the capital cost of new hardware makes it easier to sell a range of extra services, Fydler says.
"Say you have a customer with 50 staff which wants to implement token-based RSA security.

They may not have to buy a new machine to run that RSA server - we can actually throw that into a virtual world to eliminate that hardware cost. Another alternative is in the unified communications world. Virtualisation removes that hardware cost, which means the capital approval process is easier for your customers.

"It's a dying breed of integrator that focus on hardware. Integrators who have adopted the virtual approach are the ones who are really doing business at the moment."

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