Getting Started with Virtualization and Server Consolidation


Virtual what?

Many people over the last several years have used the word Virtualization and the phrase Server Consolidation as buzzwords.  Meaning they used the words to sound knowledgeable in specific areas or felt the oncoming rush of what is now upon us.  These are no longer buzzwords and catch-phrases.  It is an actual movement within the technical community that is gaining momentum on a daily basis.  Virtualization is the running of a physical server as a software server, while server consolidation is the converting of physical servers to software based servers.  If this seems to be a strange and foreign concept, that’s because it is.  People are used to installing operating systems on a physical machine and now you can install operating systems on non-physical (virtual) machines, so that any single physical machine can run multiple virtual machines.  The obvious gains are increased server utilization, ability to provision new servers without the need to purchase new hardware, lower power usage due to less hardware running, lower equipment and maintenance costs, and lower physical space needed as far as server footprints.

One of the biggest questions involved in getting started with virtualization for the first time, is what software to use and how to use it.  I’ll begin by saying that in this blog entry, I’ll only be discussing VMware products.  I’ve come to love and adore the VMware offerings, and it’s not just because I work for EMC.  I’ll mention some other products that you can research on your own if you should so choose, and actually I’d advise you to, so that you can arrive at your own decision as to product quality.  Onto the VMware products and how I’ve used them over the past several years.

VMware offers a multitude of virtualization products that are designed to meet a multitude of business needs.  Fortunately over the last few years, competition with Microsoft, and VMware’s efforts to increase the market’s interest in virtualization (completely my opinion and not backed by VMware or EMC) VMware has begun to offer a few top of the line products for free.  The products that I intend to cover in this article are:

VMware Workstation – low costs
VMware Server – free product
VMware ESXi – free product
VMware ESX / Virtual Center (also known as VI3) – costs

Can you give me the quick and dirty?

VMware Workstation
Workstation is a low-cost product that has a definite development / experimentation niche.  This product allows you to configure virtual teams that you can manage separately or together, and is great for quickly standing up environments to do application development on, testing, and prototyping.  This product runs well on laptops and desktops under non-server operating systems, and comes in both Linux and Windows flavors.

VMware Server
Server is a free product that runs on top of a Linux or Windows operating system and is designed for small and medium-sized businesses, that would like to virtualize their production servers for testing or production purposes.  This software is designed for 24/7 operation (though it is not fault tolerant) and can be run on existing hardware.  The operating systems that are supported are various flavors of Linux and Windows Server platforms.  I have personally run this product on both Windows XP and Windows Vista without serious issue.

VMware ESXi
ESXi is a slightly scaled down version of ESX and, like VMware Server, is being offered for free.  This product operates as its own ‘small-footprint’ operating system on hardware, and allows more resources to be dedicated to virtual machines since it is not running with the overhead of Linux or Windows.  Most late model hardware is compatible with the ESXi operating system, but you can check the hardware compatibility lists available on VMware’s web site if you want to make certain.

VMware ESX and Virtual Center
Now you’re getting into the highly scalable, fault-tolerant, enterprise level offering available from VMware.  This package will cost you, but will also meet enterprise level business requirements for fault-tolerance and high availability.  If you’re going to be implementing this package from VMware, I’d also advise hiring VMware, a VMware partner, or full-time employees that are VMware certified in VI3 to handle the architecture and implementation.  You will also need a SAN (Storage Area Network) to take advantage of most of the advanced features.  This stuff is going to cost you.

Where do I go from here then?  Which product do I try out or implement?

This can be pretty simple to answer, and can get you started in likely scenarios with hardware that you already possess or can acquire for relatively little investment.

If you’re a developer looking for virtual environments that you can build and tear down rapidly, you want to get started with VMware Workstation.  This product is pretty inexpensive, a couple hundred dollars the last time I checked, and will allow you to share base virtual machine images, snapshot for state saving and rollbacks, and provide for a great all around environment in which to manage your work.  It’s not free, but I wouldn’t call it expensive either.

If you’re a small or medium sized business that doesn’t want to invest in a new physical server at this time, or re-provision an existing server, and you have a physical server (Linux or Windows) that is currently underutilized, free VMware Server is your answer.  It will allow for the virtualization of some of your business servers, one at a time if you choose, to get your feet wet.  If your physical server reboots, you can have it automatically spin up your virtual machines, in a specific order if necessary.

If you’re a small, medium, or enterprise level business that is willing to purchase a new server or re-provision an existing server that meets the hardware requirements for ESXi, then VMware ESXi is your answer.  Again, as with VMware Server, this product is free.  This will allow you to get your hands dirty with what I consider to be the best virtualization platform on the market, with minimal relative investment.

If you’re an enterprise that is ready for a full virtualization initiative, hire the right personnel to help you do the job.  Either consultants or full-time employees, but make sure you don’t put your enterprise at risk by not making the correct investment in proven personnel that know what they are doing in relation to virtualization and server consolidation.  ESX and Virtual Center, along with proper expertise is your answer.

Keeping it official and above board!

Did you know that Microsoft provides a different licensing model for its operating systems, based on whether they are installed on physical or virtual hardware?  The last time I checked, you could install Windows Server 2003 only once on physical hardware in production, whereas you could install it four(4) times on virtual hardware.  Check your licensing agreements or call your Microsoft sales rep for details.  Don’t buy more licenses than you need, but don’t get caught with your business under-licensed.

At what point do I need an expert?

Honestly, an expert’s advice would never hurt.  You can get that advice with hiring an employee skilled in virtualization, sending a current employee to training, or hiring a consultant.  If you’re going the VMware route, I would suggest that you make sure the personnel have VMware Certifications or are sent to VMware training conducted by VMware or EMC.  VMware certifications are not acquired by just taking a test.  VCP’s (VMware Certified Professionals) are required to attend a multi-day class before they are even allowed to take the VCP exam, and the exam is no cake-walk either.  Having an expert’s advice from day-one will help to ensure that you are on the path to a successful virtualization implementation.

If you decide to not go with an expert’s advice from day-one, take your virtualization initiative slowly, with non-business critical systems until your personnel are comfortable with it.  I’ve heard many businesses that are not confident in their virtual infrastructure due to performance or dependability.  It’s only as good as the implementers in this case, and can be very performant and dependable if done correctly.

What are the first candidates for server virtualization?

Based on my experience, besides making the blanket statement of "any underutilized servers and servers that are only utilized in spikes", web servers, domain controllers, application servers, development and/or test servers, and even database servers depending on their utilization.  Any server can be a good candidate for virtualization depending on the needs and the virtual architecture.

Hope this article helps in your efforts.  You can always feel free to leave comments with questions and I’ll try to answer them as quickly as I can.

Can you suggest a basic server to get me started with ESX or ESXi?

Sure!  I’d suggest the Dell 1900 series based on whether you need a rack-mount or if a tower will suffice.  The tower model is lower cost.  You can beef up the 1900 series to 16GB of RAM, dual processors, and over a terabyte of storage, with 64-bit quad-core processor (and virtualization) support.  This will cost you less the $3,000 and you can likely find deals / values on this model that will get the cost down to around $2500 – $2700 (in some cases as low as $2300 – Dell on occasion offers an immediate $750 price break on check-out).  I’m running this server in ESX installed with no compatibility problems.

Good luck and Happy Virtualizing.


Alternative virtualization products include: Xen Server, Microsoft Virtual Server, Microsoft Hyper-V, Microsoft Virtual PC


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