The SME Guide to Virtualisation

Ilias Papakonstantinou
Project Team Leader Ilias Papakonstantinou’s Guide to Virtualisation for SMEs:
Many SMEs are already familiar with the benefits of running applications in a virtualised environment, an infrastructure model that helps build business efficiencies and provides improved reliability and flexibility. These days, if your business isn’t already taking advantage of virtualisation technologies – especially for storage and servers – you could be getting left behind. That being said, virtualisation, or any technology solution, should never be implemented for technology’s sake. Rather, IT infrastructure decisions and plans should be made by strategic IT specialists who can take overall budget, goals and processes into account to implement the most appropriate solution for a small business.

What is virtualisation?

In its simplest terms, virtualisation combines software and hardware engineering to create ‘virtual machines’ (vms), which allow a single machine to act as if it were many machines. For example, server virtualisation allows multiple, self-contained vms to run on a single physical server. This allows them to share the physical server’s resources, and function more efficiently as a result. Virtualisation can apply to applications, servers, storage, desktops and networks.

How should SMEs implement virtualisation technologies?

Understandably, SMEs can be apprehensive about cost and manpower challenges when introducing new technologies. This is why it’s important to first identify which business goals virtualisation will help them achieve, such as:

  • reducing hardware costs
  • increasing scalability
  • improving business continuity and disaster recovery
  • consolidation of servers and applications

An infrastructure audit is a logical first step to identify how an SME can gain maximum benefit from virtualisation technology. The audit takes into consideration existing hardware as well as future needs and capacity when procuring new equipment.

With SMEs, a phased approach (moving less critical servers or applications into the virtualised environment first) helps users become comfortable with the environment before business-critical applications are migrated.

We recently undertook a virtualisation project for our client MediaLab.  After identifying how it would be beneficial for MediaLab to migrate from on-premise to a hybrid cloud solution, the first step was to replace the legacy on-premise file server with a single VMware ESXi server host.

The legacy file server was virtualised and data replicated to the Egnyte cloud, delivering a hybrid cloud solution that allows for scalability, mobility and vastly improved business continuity.

By consolidating and using the virtualisation process with servers, we significantly reduced MediaLab’s physical infrastructure, which reduces energy and space consumption and associated costs. In fact, they’re now able to do more with less, saving time, money and resources in the process.

What are the main benefits of virtualisation for small businesses?

It means businesses are well-structured. Size and scale-appropriate virtualisation brings a high degree of flexibility into a business. This generates cost-savings and improves business opportunities in terms of upscaling. Server virtualisation is often a natural virtualisation starting point for a small business.
1. The server’s resources are used more consistently and efficiently
Server virtualisation isolates applications by consolidating many virtual machines across fewer physical servers. By provisioning virtual machines with the exact amount of processing power, storage and memory required, virtualisation drastically reduces server waste.

2. This saves hardware and running costs

If you need less hardware and fewer devices to provide the same technology services, you’re going to cut costs. In addition to this, less hardware means less support, reduced energy usage and lower expenditure on maintenance. By allowing you to do more with less, virtualisation can make entire processes more efficient.

3. The server infrastructure takes up less space onsite

Server consolidation reduces the overall footprint of your data centre. When you have fewer servers, you have fewer racks and less networking gear. This translates into less data centre floor space, which means reduced costs. This is especially true if you don’t have a data centre and opt to utilise a co-location facility.

4. Virtual servers are also easier to manage, backup and restore, giving excellent protection against unforeseen disasters, such as fire or theft.  

Downtime costs money. Most server virtualisation platforms feature advancements that aid business continuity and increase uptime. High availability, live migration and storage migration are just a few ways that a virtualised environment promotes business continuity. And should a disaster occur, hardware abstraction means that you don’t have to have identical hardware on standby to match the existing production environment. Similarly, most virtualisation platforms will have some software that automates the failover should something go wrong.

5. Improved scalability

Virtualisation is highly scalable as it lets businesses create additional resources as required – such as adding extra desktops or servers. This can be done on-demand and as-needed, which means reducing significant investments in money or time.

New servers can be created quickly as the business doesn’t need to buy new hardware each time a new server is needed. This helps businesses scale as they grow.

One consideration, however, is that the process of scaling up should be closely and strategically managed. Just because it’s easy to create a new server, this doesn’t mean admins should start adding new servers for everything – this increases the level of management required and drains resources.

Don’t be overly conservative…

Storage and server virtualisation are often the first steps for SMEs adopting virtualisation technologies due to the obvious cost benefits alone. But there’s more to virtualisation than servers and storage.

Today’s SME working environment can be complex, with people using a range of their own and their employer’s hardware to access work data, files and applications. Desktop virtualisation can help ensure seamless operation across a range of hardware ‘terminals’ with a range of different operating systems and browsers.

When a computer’s desktop environment is virtualised, it’s expanded beyond the physical limits of the screen’s display area through the use of software.Virtual desktops allow users to connect from any device (smartphone, notebooks, tablets etc.), with access to work data, files and applications; the entire working environment you would expect to see and use on a physical desktop machine.

In the rapidly growing Bring-Your-Own-Device (BYOD) modus operandi for SMEs, virtualisation solutions offer secure and consistent access to the tools employees need to work efficiently and collaboratively.

As with any virtualisation project, the first step in a desktop virtualisation project should involve a detailed analysis of the business challenges and goals and how virtualised solutions can help. There may also be other prerequisites before setting up a virtual desktop, such as upgrading CPU performance, RAM or storage. This is where an IT Services provider such as Conosco can offer expert advice to help SMEs gain maximum benefit from the new technologies.

What about security?

Virtualisation security crops up as a common concern for SMEs when, in fact, virtualisation can be considered a method to increase network security through several built-in network security advantages, such as segmentation, isolation and distribution firewalling.

  • Segmentation

Segmentation is one of the core capabilities of network virtualisation and is also a key security measure in a traditional network configuration. In a virtual network, however, this segmentation is programmatically created and distributed to the hypervisor vSwitch, removing the manual networking security provisioning and associated human error.

  • Isolation

Isolation is the foundation of most network security. By default, virtual networks are isolated from one another and from underlying physical networks.

  • Distribution firewalling

Traditionally, IT teams are often forced to choose between performance and features when configuring network security. Network virtualisation, however, allows for automated provisioning and context-sharing across virtual and physical security platforms. The virtualised infrastructure allows workloads to be placed and moved anywhere in the data centre without manual intervention, and security policies can also be applied programmatically.

Are there any downsides?

It would be remiss not to mention that virtualisation does bring certain challenges. Naturally, there are upfront costs associated with virtualisation setup and deployment (including software licenses, labour etc.). The management of a virtualised environment can also be complex, and it’s often best to leave this to the experts.

Nevertheless, the benefits of virtualisation (for businesses large and small) generally outweigh any objections. If your SME isn’t yet harnessing this technology, an expert opinion (and an IT audit) will help you identify where efficiencies could be realised, and which level of virtualisation is appropriate to your business’ budget and goals.

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