Packaging virtual appliances for SMBs

If you haven't yet considered packaging virtual appliances with your server and software offerings, it's time to take a look at what opportunities you're missing. Contributor Chris Wolf offers ideas for virtual appliance offerings and a checklist for maintaining VMs in an SMB environment.

Virtual appliance-based solutions are on the rise.

One of the fastest growing phenomena in the rise of production virtual machines has been the role of the virtual appliance. A virtual appliance is a preconfigured virtual machine set up to perform a specific task. There are Web server appliances, firewall appliances, network-attached storage (NAS) file-serving appliances and security monitoring appliances, to name a few. VMware has led the surge with hundreds of free virtual appliances.

While many resellers are taking the virtual appliance movement at face vale and finding uses for the free offerings from contributing vendors and users, few have begun to embrace the virtual-appliance mentality.

In this tip, I will identify several virtual appliance opportunities for you to consider now, and offer a checklist on how to stage one of these virtual machine (VM) offerings.

Packaging your own appliances

Using virtual appliances, you are free to package your own licensed appliances. With a packaged server and software installation, you can run software and services locally at a small or medium-sized business (SMB) office or host remotely. Free virtualization services, such as VMware Server or Microsoft Virtual Server, can enable VM appliance packaging and deployment at a relatively low cost. To host virtual machine-based solutions, the previously mentioned free services could be an option, along with the enterprise class VMware ESX Server or SWsoft Virtuozzo.

VM hosting

While SMB service hosting is relatively straight forward and was practiced long before virtual machines became commonplace, VM hosting allows for an additional level of flexibility. If your organization sells a core set of services, you could package a base set of virtual machines around those services. When new customers come on board, you would just need to modify the base virtual machine to fit into the customer's network. This may involve renaming the VM, assigning the IP address, creating an account and setting customer-specific application settings. With a prestaged source VM, no time would be needed for OS and software installation. Furthermore, most virtualization products allow you to set QoS levels per VM, so you could set limitations on CPU or network usage on a VM-by-VM basis.

Maintaining VM servers

For customers running servers locally because they are not ready to outsource server resources, they can still realize several benefits of the appliance-based approach. If one or more servers are set up (or staged) as a VM server that hosts application-centric virtual machines, you could maintain OS and application patches. As software updates and patches become available, you can update your own local copy of the customer's virtual machine, take it to the customer site and use it to replace the customer's VM.

This checklist offers an example of how you may perform updates in this way.

 Checklist: Method for maintaining staged VMs
Set up base virtual machines tailored to your offered services and store them on removable media, such as an external USB drive or DVD. As a best practice configure application-specific user data to be stored on a separate virtual disk. This will allow you to update VMs without any disturbance to customer data.
Deploy your virtualization server (VMware, Microsoft Virtual Server, etc) at the customer's location.
Stage the VMs on the customer's server. If any custom configurations are needed, create a backup of the customer's final VM. This will allow you to update the backup VM and redeploy it as new updates come about.
As updates become available, you can update the source VM and copy to the customer's VM either on site or remotely. Note that customer-specific data files should be stored on a separate virtual disk so only the VM disk files specific to the OS and application files will need to be updated. This ensures that user data will remain unchanged following the update. Ideally, you should back up the customer's source VM prior to updating the VM OS and application virtual disk source files.

Another approach to updating customer VM disk files would be to create a differencing disk (MS Virtual Server) or linked clones. I will cover that configuration in my next tip.

Taking on an appliance mentality can enable you to streamline managed system deployments and can also add additional flexibility to managed server hosting. With fully virtualized hardware, servers are also portable and not dependent on a specific host system. This could allow your IT shops to perform hardware updates without having to worry about OS driver implications. For resellers and service providers alike, the opportunities presented by virtualization may represent the next frontier in outsourcing and managed services.

Chris Wolf
Chris Wolf, MCSE, MCSE, MCT, CCNA, is a Microsoft MVP for Windows Server-File System/Storage and the Computer and Information Systems Department Head for the ECPI College of Technology online campus. He also works as an independent consultant, specializing in the areas of virtualization, enterprise storage, and network infrastructure management. Chris is the author of Virtualization: From the Desktop to the Enterprise (Apress), Troubleshooting Microsoft Technologies (Addison Wesley) and a contributor to the Windows Server 2003 Deployment Kit (Microsoft Press).
Copyright 2006 TechTarget

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