At this time of year our team is heavily into planning meetings. One debate I got into in one of these sessions was the importance of virtualisation to smaller businesses. The general reaction was that this is a technology more relevant to large organisations with large data centres or to hosters and outsourcing specialists supplying lots of compute power to those customers.
However the one consistent trend I have seen when Microsoft has entered a new area of technology is that this drives the cost of ownership down so that it becomes more affordable to the smaller business. A good example close to my own heart is SQL Server, and then the business intelligence offerings that came out with it. This cost of ownership isn’t just about cheap licenses, if that were the case then open source would be the model I would quote. It's about a more holistic approach to that cost:
- The new thing should be easy to use. I realise that this is an emotive subject, but it is business not IT perception that matters here, so familiar tools, reliability and interoperability with other tools and tasks they perform is important.
- Support and training. Eventually we all need to phone a friend to get help, so having a large ecosystem with forums, technical articles etc, as well as being able to engage consultants or the manufacturer of the software, can also help with cost of ownership.
- Reliability and credibility. Having large-scale case studies shows that any product can stand up to the requirements of big business, and that it is trusted. This is important for any business once you put your tier one application onto a new platform (my definition of tier one is something that stops the business trading if it fails).
Applying all of that to virtualisation should mean that this becomes more relevant to small business:
Ease of Use.
- You can separate functions into discrete virtual machines, where before you had to either try and get them to co-exist on a single box or buy more and more boxes.
- You can take a quick copy of a VM and test things on it, like patching and upgrades, or just take a snapshot and do whatever you want on production knowing you can go back if you need to.
- Those VMs reduce a complex setup to one or two files for backup. I would add that if you can separate the state and any data from the operating system this puts you in a better place.
- I know of several smaller business adopting Hyper-V because its familiar Windows interface and behaviour mean that all the members of their small IT teams can work with it and cover for each other.
- You can also get rid of those boxes running just one legacy application. You might be worried about whether it will run as a virtual machine, but it’s easy to test and support probably isn’t an issue - chances are, the application is out of support anyway.
Support & Training
- There are a wealth of virtualisation experts, from individual contractors through boutique partners specialising in infrastructure, to dedicated practices in the larger system integrators and hardware industry.
- Specialist training and certification is also widely available.My top site to get you started would be the Microsoft Virtual Academy, full of great, free training.
Reliability & Credibility
- With most major enterprises adopting virtualisation for their production environments - e.g the Post Office going public on using Microsoft’s virtualisation platform (Hyper-V) - this technology is now mainstream.
- As for reliability, there have been concerns about the threat posed by attacking virtual machines through the hypervisor. I couldn’t find any recorded cases of a successful attack on Hyper-V, for example, that’s not to say it’s not bombproof, rather that a program of high vigilance from the Microsoft Security Response Center (MSRC) plus the sound engineering that the Secure Development Lifecycle (SDLC) brings mean it’s pretty much as secure as it can be.
I haven’t mentioned cost. Microsoft's entry into this space in a serious way a couple of years ago has driven down the cost of virtualisation, even though one of the major players has announced some recent changes. What I mean by lowering the overall cost is that Hyper-V is being adopted where there is no obvious value in paying for virtualisation. Our internal research bears this out as we can match the shipments of new servers going to small businesses (the data comes from the hardware vendors) with what small business is buying and using.
Remember you can get some great training around virtualisation at the Microsoft Virtual Academy.