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Virtual Server Solutions: Packaging virtualization services for SMBs

Virtualization is not a technology reserved only for the large enterprise. Author Chris Wolf helps educate you on the value of offering virtual server solutions to SMBs and offers examples of packaged virtualization services.

Offering virtual server solutions as a service to the small and medium-size businesses (SMBs) is moving from fantasy to reality.

While virtualization has made a large splash in the enterprise, many SMBs have been standing by. With lower costs (free in the case of products like VMware Server or Microsoft Virtual Server), product maturity and perceived reliability, and numerous examples of virtualization technologies benefiting organizations small to large, the SMB market is primed and ready.

One issue with virtualization today is that some have viewed it as a technology for the enterprise -- or a technology for testing and development. Oftentimes, extending the value of virtualization to production uses for the SMBs will take some education. For example, many small or medium businesses allow employees to work remotely and connect to the company network via a virtual private network (VPN). Odds are that many users have local administrative rights on systems used as VPN clients, whether those systems are company owned or privately owned. The risk associated with these connections is that users with local administrative rights can easily allow malware to enter their computers. Now when an infected machine is connected to the company's local area network (LAN) via a VPN connection, the LAN is exposed to the malware on the user's personal computer.

Instead, you can deploy secure virtual machines to user desktops with products like VMware's Assured Computing Environment (ACE). It allows you to restrict which IP addresses a virtual machine can connect to, for example, so you can deploy a system that is only allowed to connect to the corporate VPN's IP address. This provides peace of mind in knowing that only stripped-down, secure systems can remotely connect to the corporate network. Furthermore, a VM can include a timebomb, making it unusable after a predetermined period of time, which can be renewed, so even if a laptop was lost the VM would quickly become useless.

There are many other practical uses for virtualization that extend to SMBs, including virtualized production servers, which can greatly reduce recovery time in the event of server failure and of course server consolidation. Countless shops still run NT 4 boxes in order to support legacy applications. These systems can become unstable over time and may require a rebuild or reboot at the very least. When staged as a virtual machine, the rebuild can be as simple as copying VM source files from a backup DVD and restoring the latest server data from backup, if necessary.

While making the case for virtualization has certainly gotten easier in recent years, packaging and managing virtualization as a service has remained a challenge. Companies like VMware, Microsoft and SWsoft have spent considerable dollars on developing partner programs in support of the channel. Vendors have certainly stepped forward to assist in sales and marketing. However, managing virtualization as a service has been viewed by many as a daunting task.

All major virtualization vendors, as well as several server vendors, noticed this gap in virtualization management and responded. Here are some tools that allow you to remotely and collectively manage virtual machines and virtual machine host systems:

While these tools may not have every feature you are looking for, odds are they offer enough for you to be able to support virtual machine-based technologies as a managed service. As the most mature product on the market, VMware clearly has the edge in deployment and remote management; however, competitors such as Microsoft and SWsoft are aggressively working to narrow the gap.

While in this tip I have covered the general possibilities that exist today in the virtualization landscape, in future tips I will provide specific examples of how to deploy unique virtualization solutions as managed services. Many have jumped feet first into the pool of virtualization solutions. If you're not yet relaxing in the pool, it's probably time to at least dip your toe in the water.

About the author: 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).

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