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Top four server virtualization enhancements for efficiency gains

In 2009, customers will be looking to improve data center efficiency to drive down costs. You can help them reach that goal by delivering four key server virtualization enhancements.

Solution provider takeaway: Learn how to help your customers enhance their server virtualization environments and improve data center efficiency by delivering solutions in four key areas. 

The new year is going to be an interesting one for resellers. It will be a year of contraction, but there will be opportunities out there. Most of them will stem from efforts to reduce IT expenses, primarily by either increasing user efficiency or reducing hardware waste.

So where should you concentrate your efforts? Your best bet is in the server virtualization arena. Despite the huge efficiency gains it has already brought to the data center, your customers have most likely not yet wrung out all of server virtualization's benefits.

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There are four key server virtualization enhancements that can save them money, drive efficiency and reduce waste: using inventory and assessment, improving the ability to add capacity in real time, easing migration from virtual to physical, and protecting the virtual infrastructure.

Inventory and assessment

Most virtualization projects start without establishing a baseline, so the "improvements" are measured based on consensus and assumptions. Making a virtual infrastructure more efficient requires an inventory, which, in the virtual world, is three-dimensional. It involves the physical server hardware, the virtual machine (VM) and the connectivity (storage and network) to those platforms.

Solution providers can use tools like Tek-Tools' Profiler for VMware and Akorri's BalancePoint to help capture this three-dimensional view of the environment. The tools can collect statistics like resource consumption (compute, memory, network and storage) from a storage-up view, a virtual-cluster-down view or an individual VM view. With this knowledge, a reseller can pinpoint where a customer might better allocate resources for performance improvements or further consolidation and cost savings.

These solutions can be used for a snapshot assessment of the status of a customer's virtual infrastructure and can be sold to the customer for their internal use. Being able to monitor in real time is critical as the customer tries to lower costs by loading up storage and server utilization at just the right time.

Dynamic capacity

Another way to deliver a server virtualization enhancement to customers is to enable the addition of virtualization capacity the moment it's needed. To some extent, tools from the virtualization software providers deliver these capabilities already. For example, VMware's Distributed Resource Scheduler (DRS) enables reallocation of VMs based on availability of compute, memory or network resources.

The challenge with a product like DRS is that it requires the server hardware to be loaded with the virtualization software, powered on and connected to the right network. If not, the dynamic nature of the data center is lost. Infrastructure virtualization solutions like those from Egenera and Scalent Systems address this problem. With these tools, the powered-off machine can be powered on, pointed to the correct virtualized OS, connected to the right subnetwork and booted, all from a remote GUI. The additional compute capacity can be brought online in about five minutes, without predefining the connections.

This means existing server resources can be powered off until needed, saving money as well as countless hours devoted to managing and planning virtual capacity.

Virtual-to-physical (V2P) migration

Your customers can also improve efficiency with the ability to quickly move an application out of the virtual world. Infrastructure virtualization solutions can work here, as can Vizioncore's new version of vConverter. So how can you save your customer budget dollars in this area? The best way is by reducing support costs and time spent troubleshooting a problem VM. Despite best intentions, when there is a support problem, most manufacturers will want to reproduce the problem in a standalone physical environment. Building this standalone system can be time-consuming.

Easy movement from virtual to physical has advantages beyond just support. For example, if your customer knows that there's a simple and effective safety net to get out of the virtualized environment, they might be more aggressive about which servers they include in their virtualization project. The more servers that are virtualized, the greater the cost benefit of the virtualization project and the greater your hero status.

Virtual-to-physical migrations can add value at the disaster recovery (DR) site as well. Many customers are interested in leveraging virtualization to keep DR site costs under control and to leverage the encapsulation advantages of virtual disk images. The goal at the primary data center is to periodically capture a copy of a standalone server into the virtual environment using physical-to-virtual conversions tools. The virtual images can be replicated to your customer's DR site and then, during a DR test or actual event, the standalone system is already available in a virtual state. For a prolonged DR event, the customer may want to move the server back to standalone hardware. Some of these software utilities, like Vizioncore's vConverter and infrastructure virtualization platforms, can easily move virtual images to physical servers.

VM protection

Protecting the virtual infrastructure itself is the last key way to enhance your customers' server virtualization environment. While not necessarily a cost saver in terms of efficiency, protection of these infrastructures is critical, and, based on most of the research, most IT managers have almost no confidence in their data protection strategy, or it is taxing the current backup process to the breaking point.

Virtual infrastructures are an ideal use case for data deduplication because of the high redundancy of the information. Network-mounted systems like those from Data Domain or FalconStor support virtualization systems' built-in data protection functionality. For example, VMware's vcbMounter is used to export a backup copy of the VM. The command is invoked at the command line or can be part of a script. With vcbMounter you can indicate the name of the VM to back up and the destination directory for the target backup, but it must be sent to a disk target.

All the files needed to re-create or restore the VM are exported by vcbMounter to produce a complete file-system-consistent backup copy of the VM. As a result, vcbMounter is better suited for backup and DR than the vmkfstools utility.

vcbRestorer imports a copy of a VM created by vcbMounter and can be used to completely recover a VM to its original state on the original ESX server host. It can also be invoked on a separate ESX server in a DR situation.

Before the appearance of NAS-based deduplication devices, the usefulness of these tools was questionable. A large NFS server was required to push the backups created by vcbMounter since the vcb tools do not support tape or VTL. Without deduplication, it was very expensive to store versions of these images on disk, so movement to tape was critical. And to get the image to tape, the data would need to be copied to the NFS server first and then backed up by the backup application -- too many steps to make these tools useful.

In the next year, even greater efficiency and resource optimization is going to be required. These tools can help you help your customer achieve those server virtualization enhancements and make you a hero in the process.

About the author
George Crump is president and founder of Storage Switzerland, an IT analyst firm focused on the storage and virtualization segments. With 25 years of experience designing storage solutions for data centers across the United States, he has seen the birth of such technologies as RAID, NAS and SAN. Prior to founding Storage Switzerland, George was chief technology officer at one of the nation's largest storage integrators, where he was in charge of technology testing, integration and product selection. Find Storage Switzerland's disclosure statement here.


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