The company I work for uses virtual machines extensively.  I use virtualization software in some capacity for nearly every project I undertake.  Virtualization technologies have been around since the ‘60s, but its resurgence in the last several years has made it an easily accessible and indispensable tool for IT shops of all sizes, big and small.  And while I don’t get caught up in too much of the hype, I do believe that virtualization has many applicable niche uses.

Virtualization can refer to many things, but I am referring to it in the form of OS and application level simulation – OS virtualization in that it simulates an operating system environment without altering the host system, and application virtualization in that it encapsulates all of the core components needed to run an application within a virtual shell.

If you believe the hype coming from the main camps, companies like VMware, Microsoft, Citrix and Altiris will tell you there are not many systems which can not be virtualized.  To a certain extent it’s true, but I have had one too many negative experiences hosting a production application on Citrix MetaFrame running from a virtual machine on VMware’s ESX Server.  Maybe I was asking too much anyway, but I’ll wait a while before attempting that scenario again.  It can be done, just not quite as reliably and smoothly as I prefer in a production environment.  The biggest issue concerning more complex virtual deployments is pinpointing the source of a problem when one arises.  Is the operating system, application, hardware or virtual platform the problem?  It could be any combination.

Without question, the configuration of test environments is the biggest benefit most companies realize from platform virtualization.  The products available at the prices offered (in some cases free) mean there is absolutely no justifiable reason for not having test servers configured before deploying or upgrading applications in a production environment.  Test systems may not have been possible for smaller companies before now due to the capital required to run a parallel test environment.  But that simply should not be used as an excuse today.

Using virtualization software for testing purposes is a no-brainer.  Where I’ve found the most tangible use is with smaller scale applications.  For instance, a hospital director forwarded a project to me last week for review.  His assumption was that we would spend roughly twelve thousand dollars on a new server to host a small SQL server database accessed by less than twenty users.  But after reviewing the modest system requirements I recommended using a virtual server instead.  The savings will amount to more than ten thousand dollars and a much faster deployment time as we will not have to wait for equipment to arrive.  It is a positive outcome for the end-users, IT staff and the company’s bottom line.

How many dedicated workstations do you have taking up valuable real estate in your data center?  Many systems deployed in a healthcare environment, for example, specify that a workstation or small server be used as a gateway or interface server.  Workstations serving this role rarely reach more than ten percent of their resource utilization.  Virtual machines are perfect for this function, and using them in this fashion has drastically reduced the number of individual workstations housed in our space-constrained data center.

Disaster recovery is another area that is promoting a surge in software virtualization use.  Hopefully, restoring enterprise servers to dissimilar hardware in remote DR locations will be a thing of the past.  Companies like VMware offer software called P2V which can convert your physical servers to virtual replicas.  These replicas can be stored off-site and more easily brought on-line than traditional recovery methods.

 There are many more benefits to using virtualization software.  The market is maturing rapidly as bigger players such as Microsoft gobble up talented smaller companies such as Softricity.  The product offerings will continue to evolve and become more stable and robust.  Management suites already are being released by many outside companies attempting to get in on this growing market.

Chime in and let me know how you’re utilizing virtual software in your environment.