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Virtual Computers

November 12, 2007

© 2007 by Nick B. Nicholaou, all rights reserved
President, Ministry Business Services, Inc.
Reprinted from Christian Computing Magazine

This sounds futuristic:  virtual computers!  But they’re a reality, and have been growing in popularity since the 1990s!  In fact, many churches and ministries are already saving money and enjoying the benefits of this technology.  But what exactly is it?  And is it safe?  And what does it cost?  Let’s take a closer look.

Why Virtual Computers?
Most of today’s computers have processors that are severely underutilized.  While we often max out our hard drives and RAM, our processors usually amble along at a small percentage of their capacity.  In fact, if you are using a Windows XP computer, try right-clicking on your task bar (between the Start button and the clock), selecting the Windows Task Manager, and then clicking on its Performance tab.  Opening it will cause utilization to spike, but chances are it’ll quickly settle down in a range that’s less than 10% of processing capacity.

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 ROI (Return On Investment) to their organization.

It wasn’t until the 1990s that we saw engineers and programmers 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— or host— 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 it’s done!  The virtual computer runs in a window on your desktop and can be completely configured as though it were a separate computer!

Three Vendors
Currently there are three software providers for this technology:  Microsoft, VMware, and Citrix.  Though Microsoft may win in the end, the market is dominated by VMware.  A recent 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.

What’s The Point?
Virtual computer technology such as that offered by VMware can save your ministry a lot of money.  Consider that most networks today are best engineered with multiple servers to improve the network’s reliability and stability.  In fact, though most networks are engineered with three or more servers, we sometimes see ministries running multiple services on a server that should be run on separate servers to prevent conflicts.  But buying those separate servers is expensive, so many compromise their system to stay within budget. 

Rather than buying separate physical servers for each of those needs, virtual servers allow the possibility of buying significantly fewer computers and configuring them as hosts with many virtual servers running on them!  Each virtual server can be configured independently from the others, and, if needed, can be shut down / restarted very quickly without affecting any of the others.

What About Virtual Workstations?
Virtual computer technology can help some desktop functions too!  Here are two examples:

  • When your IT team wants to test a software package that’s been requested by your staff, they can set up a test system on a virtual computer much faster than they can on a standard computer.
  • If some of your team members use Macs, VMware’s Fusion can allow them to create a virtual PC on the Mac.  Fusion allows them to run any Windows-based programs, such as your database or accounting system, right on their Mac!  Fusion can even be configured to completely unify with the Mac desktop so Windows-based programs run in windows just like any other Mac program!  (In fact, that’s how I’m writing this article!)

(Though there are a few ways to run Windows-based programs, VMware’s Fusion is my favorite.)

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.

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