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Are the Big 3 Well-suited to Sell SMBs Virtualization?

Vendor View: Smaller companies have special requirements

(Disclosure: This is a vendor-contributed article.)

Small and medium-sized businesses looking to adopt virtualization technologies often find that they don't know where to begin.  There are so many virtualization solutions out there that it’s difficult to choose the right one. Sure, there are the big three (Citrix, Microsoft and VMware) that always come to mind, but are they really well-suited for the SMB environment? 

SMBs need to find a solution that is flexible but will also position them for growth, while reducing risk and cost, and providing a great value and return on investment. The decision, of course, all comes down to what type of SMB you are and which technology best fits the needs of your organization. On the surface, all of the large virtualization players essentially offer the same core set of features: they virtualize Linux or Windows, move a running virtual machine from one node to another manually or automatically for various purposes, and perform basic management tasks. 

However, when you get to the point of actually choosing between virtualization providers, the difference for SMBs comes down to cost, complexity and personal or corporate preferences.  In the rush to address the emerging SMB market, these bigger companies are essentially giving away their respective low-end virtualization software free. Of course, free does not always mean better. Let’s take a closer look:

VMware started offering its VMware player free, then its VMware server, and even its VMware hypervisor.  While this will allow you to start virtualizing your infrastructure on a basic level, if you want to use these products in production, you’re going to need a small array of more advanced features, not the least of which is the ability to move a virtual machine (VM) from one host to another, especially while live.  This means spending more money to buy VMware vSphere and licenses for ESX or ESXi.

Citrix offers XenServer free, but similar to VMware, the more advanced features (most notably high availability and site recovery) are very pricey.

Microsoft offers its virtualization technology (Hyper-V) free with each license of Windows Server 2008 R2.  As with other vendors, high availability and higher features require more monetary investment, but this time in the form of the higher end versions of Windows such as 2008 R2 Enterprise. 

What all these options have in common is the need for shared storage in order to enable high-availability and live migration of VMs, two of the most basic and vital components of virtualization. Without a storage area network (SAN) device, VMs would be stored on local disks.  To move a VM from one host to another, you must at least move the virtual disk.  If you want to move a VM with a one terabyte virtual disk, the copy process alone could easily take seven hours over a 1 Gbps Ethernet network.  The trick, therefore, to moving a VM from one host to another is to have the storage used by the first VM already accessible to the target host.  You can accomplish this by buying a SAN, or in some cases (Xen and VMware) by using an already exported network file system (NAS) on which to share the virtual drives.  Both obviously imply spending cash, and incurring some form of speed loss over local storage.

SANs are usually the better choice for performance reasons, but they are costly.  Very low-end SANs start from about $15,000 and can scale up to multi-million dollar investments in EMC hardware.  Naturally, if you’re looking for high availability, you’d need at least two SANs, as a single SAN would represent a single point of failure.

Most small to medium enterprises that virtualize for cost and IT agility reasons eventually discover that virtualization itself is driving a much greater need for high availability. While it’s annoying when one of your six-to-12 servers goes down, it’s not typically disastrous to your business.  When an outage affects the virtualization server and all 12 virtual machines simultaneously go down, however, the entire enterprise grinds to a halt. 

Eventually, you’ll want high availability, and thus a SAN, which starts at an average $40,000 for two.  For the SMB, this alone can obviate the cost benefits of virtualization.  Furthermore, running and tuning a SAN is not for the faint of heart. Many customers have been surprised by downtime resulting from improperly configured redundancy months after installing production systems.  So keep in mind that some of the promise of high availability is reduced by downtime from learning and growing pains.

To offset these costs, SMBs would be wise to look at vendors who actually develop solutions with the needs of the SMB in mind. Outside of the big three players, there are vendors that offer virtualization storage solutions that don’t necessitate the purchase of costly external SANs.  Other things SMBs should consider:

  1. Select a fully integrated and scalable virtualization solution. Select a virtualization solution that:
    • Does not require any hardware other than standard servers
    • Is based on the same operating system family as the virtualized servers
    • Is scalable as the organization grows
  2. Look at the ability to remove shared storage-related dependencies.  Instead of ripping out and replacing hardware, the ability to repurpose existing hardware can save SMBs a large portion of their virtualization budget. Storage virtualization software that lets you construct virtual SANs using internal disks in each physical server is an efficient and cost effective solution.

As SMBs look at various vendors that claim to be SMB friendly, they need to consider a solution that will not only provide them with the expected results, but also simplify the overall environment. Not all virtualization solutions are the same, and not one virtualization solution fits all types of environments, so look at solutions that are easy to implement, require little training and optimize the use of resources already in place. When it comes to virtualization for the SMB, look for a solution that is designed for the reality of the smaller environment -- one that is easy to install, configure and maintain.  Virtualization solutions designed for the SMB exist, it’s just a matter finding a vendor who understands the business needs and offers a solution that is tailored to meet them.

About the Author

Eric Courville is COO of VM6.

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