The world of science fiction has created an endless number of wonders that spark the imagination. The iconic television series “Star Trek” featured prominently for years a virtual technology called a holodeck, where virtual constructs of anything you could imagine were created and could interact with the physical world then be saved for later use. This is, of course, pure Sci-Fi fantasy; however, imagine taking your computer or server and making it virtual and then running it inside a window on another physical computer at the same time. Take that a step further and imagine running 100 separate computers on just a handful of physical computer towers with the ability to access each one remotely. Over the next few issues, we are going to discuss computer and server virtualization technology and how it can impact the way you operate your business, as well as dip into a few of the technical aspects of some of the uses for this technology.
A virtual machine is really just a program that impersonates the characteristics of physical computer components to an instance of an operating system that is running in a virtual space, like the holodeck, in a computer’s memory. This virtual can have almost any operating system installed on it from Windows 95 to Linux to even Mac OSx in some cases. These virtual computers can be desktops or servers and can be run on desktops or servers. The virtual machine or VM can be paused, saved, and moved from one computer to another and un-paused and continue being used where it left off. This functionality is because all the information about the VM and what it is doing is nothing more than a file, like a word document.
That’s all really cool, but how does it solve problems for a business? Let’s look at an example for a desktop user. Your computer is 10 years old, runs Windows XP, and you have not upgraded because the software that manages your inventory only works on Windows XP. A virtual machine running Windows XP with your inventory software can be created and run inside virtualization software on your shiny new Windows 8 computer or Mac, and both your inventory software and Windows XP don’t know the difference. You can take this virtual machine and run it almost anywhere. You can back it up just by making a copy of the file. So, you can, in seconds, recover if something goes wrong with the live virtual machine. Just open the old file!
Now let’s have a look at servers. Yes, we can virtualize them, too. As a matter of fact, you could virtualize a server and run it on your desktop or laptop, but that isn’t what makes server virtualization great. Lots of offices have servers that are one trick ponies, that is to say they sit there and run one application or a database, because that is the only way the software developer would support it. The hardware on these servers never comes close to its maximum usage, so there is a lot of wasted computing potential. Imagine if you had 3, 4, or 5 servers on the same hardware sharing that computing potential and not fighting for it. This ability to run multiple servers on a single physical server is a pretty big deal, and a big savings, but what else can server virtualization do? Let’s buy 2 servers and put 3 virtual servers on each one, and hook them up on a network. Let’s say a virtual server on server one is using a lot of memory and processor time. The 3 virtual servers on server two are not using a lot of memory or processor time. We can move our problem virtual server over to server two, and some or all of our existing servers on server two over to server one, and suddenly our resource hungry virtual server has all the resources it needs to get its job done. That is known as load balancing, and can be done automatically using virtual machine management software. Since all these virtual servers are just files and we can just move them around, can we use them to make our disaster recovery more efficient? The answer is a resounding yes! A snapshot can be taken of a virtual server at any point and stored with the other virtual machine files. You can use this snapshot to roll back any changes made by an update or software installation that may have not gone as expected, disaster averted. A full backup of the virtual machine and the data accessed by the machine can be backed up and stored off site. If your building burns down overnight, just bring up the virtual machines on another server off site and you are up and running in no time. Need it to be up and running even faster? Backup and virtualization technologies are available that will allow you to fail-over to a hot site somewhere else in the world as soon as your local servers go down with the potential of having only a few minutes of downtime and lost data.
Virtualization technology is amazing and flexible and can support businesses in a number of ways. It isn’t a magic pill though. There are a few stumbling blocks on the road. Proper planning, purchasing the right software to meet business goals, licensing and license management for operating systems running on the virtual machines, backup, and storage all have to be addressed when moving to a virtualized environment. Depending on requirements and goals, the up-front cost can also be a barrier to adopting virtualization technology. Over the next few issues, we will discuss virtualization in more detail, how it fits in with The Cloud, and what you need to make it all work.