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Linux server virtualization services

Provide Linux server virtualization services to clients and your bottom line will benefit. Contributor Ken Milberg explains why now is the time for resellers and systems integrators to jump on the Linux virtualization bandwagon.

IT channel takeaway: Arguably, the most important topic today in the server market is virtualization. The same is true for Linux servers. Linux server virtualization is a ripe market for channel partners. In this tip, I'll define server virtualization and discuss available server implementations, why virtualization is such a hot commodity and why you, as a reseller or systems integrator, should be paying attention to Linux virtualization business opportunities.



   What is server virtualization?
   Which virtualization software is best for Linux servers?
   Where are the Linux server virtualization service opportunities?


  What is server virtualization?  Return to Table of Contents

Server virtualization is best defined as logically creating and sharing more resources from actual physical hardware. This can include the number of physical host servers, processors, operating systems, network interface cards (NICs) and I/O. Server virtualization allows you to take a single piece of hardware and run simultaneously different operating systems in parallel, providing greater flexibility to users as virtual machines are created inside physical servers. Reducing the amount of hardware saves on total cost of ownership (TCO) by allowing for a smaller footprint in the datacenter, which also has the net effect of lowering power and cooling costs.

At the same time, fewer systems mean lower hardware maintenance costs. Virtualization software also allows the user to manage multiple partitions from a single physical box, which means fewer administrators and a quicker turnaround time in delivering new systems to customers. Clearly it is much easier to create a virtual partition in a physical box than it is to order new hardware and have to build it. All this provides IT with the ability to tackle the most difficult server and datacenter consolidation projects. Virtualization is definitely an enterprise trend that has started to skyrocket in the last year, with the forecast promising much more.


  Which virtualization software is best for Linux servers?  Return to Table of Contents

With respect to Linux, many new systems have come around during this time. I'm often asked which server virtualization software I would recommend for a particular distribution. My feeling is that unless there is a real business reason to use something different, I would stick with my distribution's virtualization strategy, particularly if it is to your technical liking and not cost prohibitive. If yours is like most companies, it probably uses either SLES 10 (SUSE Linux Enterprise Server 10 or RHEL5 (Red Hat Enterprise Linux 5).

Linux virtualization service opportunities
Virtual machine and paravirtualization services 

Linux on IBM POWER (LoP) for consolidation and scalability 

Server Virtualization Project Guide

Both Linux distributions utilize Xen for their virtualization strategies, though there are differences. Xen has been available on Novell's SUSE for over a year now, while Red Hat just stepped to the plate recently. Xen virtualization is widely considered to provide the best performance, and fully virtualized environments allow for more guest instances. Xen, a hypervisor, which can execute several virtual machines on one piece of hardware, is based on paravirtualization. This virtualization strategy already has the support of many of the largest vendors. IBM has actually been working to improve Xen with Red Hat and Xen for several years. Big Blue intends to fully support RHEL5 as its virtualization strategy on Intel Blade Center systems. The appeal with Xen is that not only is it integrated within the distribution's product, but it is also open source and much lower cost than commercial products, such as VMware. From a technical perspective, because of its hypervisor-based design, it is also the best technical virtualization solution on the Linux market today.

VMware's biggest product is the ESX Server, which is a bare-metal type of product. VMware server relies on a base operating system to run, which requires additional overhead. One feature of Xen is its ability to host either Linux guest instances with Xen-aware kernels or with newer hardware to host unmodified guest operating systems that include Microsoft Windows. Though a little late in the game, as Solaris 10 AND SLES10 have been doing this for awhile, lots of folks are extremely excited about the Red Hat implementation. Many have expressed the opinion that Xen would really jumpstart Linux as the platform of choice for server virtualization. Linux is already a popular option for IT managers who use it as a host for virtual machines in the datacenter. With the Xen implementation running natively on Red Hat and SUSE, the number of virtual servers hosted on Linux will no doubt increase dramatically.

Since we have already mentioned IBM, Let's talk about another innovation, Linux on Power (LoP). IBM POWER5 processor-based systems, which include System p, System i and BladeCenter JS21servers, and OpenPower, have been tuned for Linux by IBM engineers, offering features for Linux previously only available on Unix and mainframe architectures. Tuning is done in many areas including virtualization, performance, scalability and reliability. The POWER5 architecture on Linux makes Linux a viable option for the most mission-critical applications. Both Red Hat and SUSE have supported versions on the pSeries which also support IBM's Advanced Power Virtualization (APV), a hypervisor-based implementation of virtualization on the midrange, which is also based on paravirtualization. These systems will allow you to run both Unix (IBM's flavor, AIX) and Linux hosts natively on its logical partitions (LPARs). With APV, there is built in support for micro-partitioning (creating partitions with less then one CPU), virtualizing of network and I/O, along with the sharing of CPU resources across the boundaries of the logical partitions. Of all the virtualization technologies out there, Xen most closely mirrors IBM's APV.


  Where are the Linux server virtualization service opportunities?  Return to Table of Contents

Why is this important to you as a channel partner and where are the sales opportunities? You must be viewed as someone who can provide value-added services to your clients. Simply put, if you cannot, then there really is no reason for customers to purchase these systems from you, as they can usually find a way to buy direct. Gone are the days where selling hardware alone could grow your business. As a vendor, IBM was one of the first to recognize this, and actually reengineered the entire company to one that is more service-oriented than hardware-based. You would be wise to follow that lead. When your customers are ready to look at server consolidation, workload management and datacenter consolidation, be ready to provide solutions, which usually include virtualization strategies. Make sure your engineers are fully trained on how best to architect virtualization technologies for clients.

On the business side, be prepared with presentations that show how you can help lower TCO and increase return on investment (ROI) by implementing virtualization-based projects. At the same time, you should also have a strong understanding of what the client is looking to accomplish before starting a Linux server virtualization project. Virtualization is a hot commodity, but it is not for every situation. Recognize that your customers will typically use Linux server virtualization to save money on hardware and/or increase the overall use of resources within a physical box. As discussed previously, other benefits include greater flexibility and speed of deployment of new host systems. However, if a customer has unlimited resources (IT support staff and dollars), where the environment requires maximum performance, virtualization may not be the best answer. Most customers do not have unlimited resources and are jumping on the virtualization bandwagon.

Assuming, your customer has a legitimate need for virtualization, where are the actual sales opportunities? This is where the services side of your organization should play a central role. It's not enough to deploy Linux servers that have virtualization software preinstalled. The customer usually is not in a position to understand all the intricacies of how best to configure these virtualization products for maximum efficiency. You must know exactly how to install and configure the products, as your technical staff will already have been trained on how to architect and implement Linux virtualization solutions. Using the services side of your business as a selling point, you can then also position yourself to sell hardware. The last thing a busy IT department needs to do is learn which hardware virtualizes best for their purposes, not to mention all the challenges or properly configuring the virtualization software.

You may also have the opportunity to become a mentor of sorts for the client and be used in an education role, training their IT staff on how to administer products. I know some resellers and systems integrators may find this unsettling, because they might feel that the customer would not need them after the system has been deployed. My experience has been that on the contrary, the customer will be that much more appreciative and will certainly continue to call on you for advanced engineering and support. Some of your larger clients may even need onsite support to help manage their infrastructures. Who better to call on than the channel partner who helped design and implement their Linux virtualization technologies?

In conclusion, though you may determine initially that virtualization might threaten your ability to sell more hardware, don't lose sight of the inherent services opportunity of virtualization. Forward thinking companies today have recognized the growing potential of the services side of the business, as opposed to the hardware, and you should, too. Provide services that will save the customer money and enhance their ability to support users. In doing so, that customer will continue to call on you, new hardware is needed or not.

About the author: Kenneth Milberg is a systems consultant with his own independent consulting firm, Unix-Linux Solutions. He has 15 years of experience with Unix and Linux systems, as well as broad technical and functional experience with AIX, HP, SCO, Linux and Solaris. Milberg holds certifications with IBM (IBM Certified Systems Expert -- eServer p5 and pSeries Enterprise Technical Support AIX 5L V5.3 & IBM Certified Specialist –HACMP), SUN (SCNA,SCSA), HP (HP Certified –HP-UX administration) Cisco (CCNA) and Oracle (OCP-DBO).


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