Maximizing Your Network– Virtually!

Written by Nick B. Nicholaou on . Posted in Articles

© 2009 by Nick B. Nicholaou, all rights reserved
President, Ministry Business Services, Inc.
Reprinted from CTI’s Your Church Magazine

There’s a new technology in town, and it’s a pro at helping you maximize your network— budgetarily and operationally.  But there’s one catch: it’s free.  Yup!  Free!  The first time I heard about it I asked, “Can it possibly be any good?”  I think you’ll be just as surprised as I was.

What is this strange new technology?
The most expensive component in your network server is its processor chip.  Yet if you look at the percentage that chip is actually being used, you’ll likely find that it’s usage is less than 10% of its capacity.  This technology takes advantage of the extra capacity and allows you to run virtual servers on one physical computer.  That means less computers running as servers, which will save you money.

Doesn’t ‘free’ always have a catch?
Though that’s always the right question to ask, the answer is not always.  In this case the software that would meet the needs of nearly all churches really is free.  The companies offering it make their money on larger operations, and the percentage of churches that need the more expensive versions is small.

The only cost is that of installing the software.  That either means time spent by your staff, or funds to hire an engineer who knows how to configure virtual server hosts.  But before you wonder whether or not it is really worth doing, here’s a quick list of the benefits I’ll expand upon further in this article:

  1. Fewer physical servers are needed to run your network, saving money on hardware.
  2. Increased reliability and stability of your network.
  3. Easier network administration.
  4. Better disaster recovery and business continuity.
  5. Lower electrical power usage.

Historical Perspective
Excess processor capacity was first noticed and exploited in early mainframe computers in the 1960s.  Engineers and programmers found ways to get more out of those computers’ processors, increasing their value and return on investment (ROI) to their organization.

It wasn’t until the 1990s that engineers and programmers started doing something similar for PCs.  That’s when VMware created software allowing one PC to run multiple computers at the same time!  Because these computers are not separate hardware computers but are actually running within another computer, they’re virtual.

Does It Require an Advance Computer Science Degree?
It’s actually very easy to set up a virtual computer!  Once the software is installed that enables this functionality, all you do is click on a button to create a new virtual machine.  It asks what the operating system will be, how large of a hard drive and how much RAM it will need, and then it’s ready to go!  The virtual computer runs in a window on your desktop and can be completely configured as though it were a separate computer!  The first thing you’ll do is install the operating system of the virtual computer, and so on.  Exactly like setting up a physical server.

So… more on the benefits…

  1. Fewer physical servers.  Remember that most servers’ processors are severely underutilized.  Though they may spike in utilization at any given time, those spikes are short-lived and not tied to activities on other servers.

    We have talked with church and ministry IT managers who have said they reduced their physical server count from more than 20 down to 3 or 4!  From 70 down to 10!  In our office we went from 10 down to 5!

    Brunswick Street Baptist Church (Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada) is in a century-old building.  Rick Wightman, their IT Director, said, “With a small budget and almost no real estate to put gear in, we pursued virtualization as a way of providing services in a manageable way while staying inside our physical footprint.”

  2. Increased reliability.  One of the best ways to improve network reliability and stability is to take many of the various services performed on a server and split them out to different servers.  This decreases the number of conflicts and facilitates restarting a service without affecting other services.  Examples of services that are often separated are mail, database, communications, security, backup, and so on.

    Virtual servers, even though running on the same physical computer, are truly separate servers.  This technology makes it easily and affordably possible to separate services.  It also makes it possible to set up test servers for new software and patches.  “Virtualization has also allowed us to be more adventurous since we can experiment without incurring additional overhead for the gear to support it, or potentially poisoning a production machine. We provision a new machine and if it doesn’t suit us, delete it. If it does we can decide how to place it in the mix,” added Wightman.

  3. Easier network administration.  One of the features of this technology is the ability to take ‘snapshots’ of virtual servers on a scheduled basis.  Depending on the amount of hard drive space available, this may allow you to keep many snapshots available so that if you had to, you could restore a server to a previous moment in time with a couple of mouse clicks.  This can be very helpful in overcoming a malware infection or crash that has corrupted data.  It’s also easier administration because you might have a half-dozen or more virtual servers running on one computer, and switching between them is all done simply with a mouse click.
  4. Better disaster recovery and business continuity.  Though the host computer should be one that is appropriately engineered for its role, the software that allows hosting virtual servers can run on almost any recent computer.  So if you had a physical server completely crash get stolen, or destroyed you could get your network back up and running pretty quickly by simply taking some desktop computers and putting the virtual server software on them.

    Lakeview Church (Indianapolis, IN) Network & Systems Manager, David Szpunar, said their physical server count only decreased from 11 to 9.  But he has setup 40 virtual servers!  “Almost every virtual server has a dedicated task, and that has increased our reliability and improved our backup significantly.

  5. Lower power usage.  Fewer physical servers means less power consumption, which requires less air conditioning.  Some utility companies even offer incentives to virtualize!

Three Vendors
Currently there are three software providers for this technology:  Microsoft, VMware, and Citrix.  Though Microsoft may eventually win, the market is currently dominated by VMware, the company that invented the technology.  A survey published by Information Week (October 15, 2007, page 40) showed that 77% of business technology professionals’ computers run VMware.  (Both Microsoft and VMware offer free versions of their server virtualization software.)

In our firm’s lab we began our testing with Microsoft’s solution, found it problematic, and switched to VMware.  VMware is easy to use, stable, and powerful; we haven’t looked back.  You can download a free copy for use on as many host computers as you’d like at www.vmware.com.

Virtual computers— especially as servers— make a lot of sense.  They are easy to configure and use, and are cost effective ways to get more out of your hardware investment.  They are easy ways to earn those words we all hope to hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

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