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To Virutalize or Not To Virtualize

Posted on 2006-11-14
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I'm looking for some advice on whether or not to migrate from physical to virtual servers, and hope that some of you out there have some experience with virtual servers and can let me know if they are an option for me to consider or not.

At present, I'm preparing to replace our existing servers, upgrade them to Windows Server 2003, and probably set up a new, off-site, disaster recovery (DR) server. We currently have three physical servers set up as follows:

Server 1
    Domain controller
    File/Print server
    Intranet server

Server 2
    Exchange

Server 3
    Exchange front-end for OWA
    Fax server

We'll need all of these function on the new servers PLUS Microsoft SQL Server (for light duty apps) and some type of anti-spam front-end for Exchange.

Because of space/cost considerations, I really don't want to add any more machines (not counting the DR server). So I've been considering migrating to virtual servers so that we can use 2-3 physical machines but have more virtual machines. These are the pros and cons of moving to virtual servers as I see them:

PROS
-  I can separate functions better. For example, I could separate our domain controller from other functions or separate Exchange and SQL server onto "different" servers.
-  Setting up the disaster recovery server would be quite easy in that I would just restore the necessary VMs onto the DR server.
-  Hardware maintenance or replacement would be much easier (though this has not been a big issue for us in the past).

CONS
-  The extra complications involved. Learning about and setting up virtual servers may not be worth the trouble. Also, I'm a one person IT department with business operations people as backup, and the simpler for them (and me!) the better.
-  It may not save us anything in hardware costs as we may wind up with the same number of physical servers and/or require higher end servers to run the VMs.
-  Backing up may be more involved as we'll need "regular" backups of data from the VMs for restoring deleted files, etc. and a backup of the VM itself for disaster recovery purposes.
-  I've read that running DCs and Exchange on VMs is not a good idea because of performance.

Note that we only have about 15 users, and usage of most of the Windows services other than e-mail is fairly light (our main application runs on a separate Unix server).

So what are your thoughts on this? Are virtual servers a good option for us or not, and for what reasons? Any positive or negative experiences doing something similar?

Thanks,

bhaf
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Question by:bhaf
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by:trenes
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Hi bhaf,

Cons,
Single point of failure.

I really havent considered a virtual machine unless for setting up a test lab.
Maybe if I was an ISP then I see the pro's a virtual manageble pc for every client on a single monster machine sounds great to me.

Cheers!
regards,

Trenes
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by:trarthur
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You can run file/print services in a VM with no problem, especially with only 15 users.  And you could move the intranet onto that same VM.

I don't know what the specs of your current equipment are, but I'm running 5 VM's on a dual 3Ghz xeon with 4GB of RAM, Server 03 as the host OS.

I plan to virtualize EVERYthing as I move forward.  I don't have DC's or exchange boxes, but I do have a couple SQL boxes, public web server, two file/print servers, and some other boxes doing various things.  You could probably safely have your DC's and exchange run in VM's since your organization is relatively small.

As far as administration goes, you'll continue to administer them as you always have.  I use RDP all day on my servers.  Your backup staff can as well.

You will need more RAM and disk space per server than a pure physical setup.

Get a copy of VMware Server, load it on your PC and play with it if you haven't already.
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by:rvthost
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Hi bhaf -

Well, I'm a huge proponent of virtualization :)   I think the management is incredibly easy, DR is great, and hardware migrations/end of lease activities no longer impact business.  With that said though, based on your current server count, services, and user count, I'm not sure you could ever show a good ROI.  You're right in that you would spend considerable money on hardware upgrades for the servers, and unless money is no object, I don't see you putting in a SAN with redundant paths...so there's always that single point of failure.  Without a SAN, at least in the VMware world, you lose some really nice features without that shared storage (ie VMotion).  So I think all you would be doing is running multiple servers on a single physical machine and would not be able to take advantage of some true virtualization benefits.  I think you would see your DR processes improve, but you would also see your server count increase as you start to separate apps (even if it's just virtual), which means additional management, licenses, etc.  

IMHO, based on your 15 users with their current services, I'd say hold off for now.  But by all means, download the free VMware Server and throw it on a test server for yourself to get familiar with virtualization and set yourself up with a nice test dev environment. :)
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by:trarthur
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Something I forgot to mention that Trenes said.  There is a single point of failure in that if the physical box goes down, it brings down all of the VM's on it.
*BUT*, depending on how often you plan to backup your .vmdk files, it's just a matter of copying those .vmdk files to another server and starting the VM.
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by:bhaf
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Thanks for the comments. Sounds like it is worth at least giving it a test run and/or setting up a test environment with it. I don't have any test servers at the moment, so I'll have to figure out how to do that.

As far as the single point of failure goes, I don't think it would be too much worse than the alternative. If we do go the virtual server route, I would have at least two machines, and if we don't, each machine will have multiple functions in any case. So I think more services would go down with a server crash, but it may be easier to recover from it if using the virtual servers.

I'm not too worried about the additional license costs, but you're right, rvthost, I would not be putting in a SAN and would lose those advantages.

One other thing that I forgot to mention that may be important. Our fax server requires several specialized fax boards (which connect to T1 and analog lines). Would a VM have problems "seeing" this non-standard equipment on the host machine?

bhaf
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by:trarthur
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It would be worth talking to the vendor about running their software in a VM.  Some support it and some don't.  
VMware has the ability to address some peripherals, but not all of them.
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Jeffrey Kane - TechSoEasy earned 145 total points
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If you only have 15 users why are you not considering Small Business Server 2003 R2?

It's a pretty tough bargain to beat, and it is incredibly reliable as long as you deploy and configure it in the way it was designed.

As for virtualization, I've been running my own SBS as a virtual machine for almost a year now.  For backup, I just have the host machine run NTBackup to copy the VHD image off to a USB Hard drive each night.  The host is Server 2003 Standard, and I'm running an additional Virtual Server 2003 Standard as a Terminal Server/Member Server of my SBS Network.

Granted, I probably don't have the load of 15 users... there are really only three people accessing the network... but I probably get enough email equivalent to 15 users, so Exchange is certainly running well in that manner.  (Much of the email I get has automated responses... all server based).

I'm currently running all of this on a Dell PowerEdge 1800 with Dual 3.2Ghz Xeon EM64T Processors and 4GB of RAM.  The host OS is Windows Server 2003 64bit, but the guests are 32bit.

If you wanted to run SBS as the Host there's even a supporting document to install a virtual Server 2003 as an Application Server (http://sbsurl.com/vs).  Although this defeats the simple disaster recovery model.

As for DR... I am able to take my SBS's Backup VHD image and boot it from my laptop running VirtualPC... it can be back up anywhere within about 20 to 30 minutes because all I have to do is plug the USB Hard drive into a machine running either VirtualPC or Virtual Server and it just boots up from there.  I also use the backup images to test install pretty much everything.  It's a lab environment that is absolutely current to my production environment so I get a true test.  I wish I could get some of my clients running this way so I could use their images to run test installs against their actual environment this easily.  (Instead of using their NTBackup which I have to restore to a lab machine wasting hours and hours of time!)

Anyhow... I would ONLY go with Virtual Server 2005 and not VMWare if you're going with Windows Servers.  It's incredibly stable and easy to deploy and use.  Not to mention being free.

Seriously take a look at SBS, because it'll save you both in time, and money.  Plus it has a host of features that you cannot find on standard servers.  The "limitations" of SBS are hardly ever a problem for a company of 15 users.  But the benefits are tremendous... especially since you're a 1-man show... you can't really afford to have your business operations backup folks be doing much of anything... so why not get a system where they don't need to!

http://microsoft.com/sbs for more info.

Jeff
TechSoEasy

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by:bhaf
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I'll have to look into the fax board/fax server issue to see if the vendors support it in a VM. We get a large volume of incoming faxes and this is an important function for us.

As for why we don't run Small Business Server...I don't remember! When I originally set up the current servers about 4 years ago, I remember looking into SBS as I figured it would be perfect for us. But there was something that we wanted that it didn't support as I recall, but I don't recall what that was. Perhaps it was because we wanted to run Outlook Web Access and everyone said you need to do that on a front-end server. But I really don't remember now.

It's probably worth looking into SBS again as the current version may be different in any case. Do you know off hand what limitations it has compared to "full" versions?

And Jeff, how long does the server have to be down for you to backup the VHD each night? We currently have about 60 GB of data that I expect to double or triple in the life of our next servers, and although we're not open for business at night, I would be concerned about long backup windows. And do I understand you correctly in that you can boot the VHD image directly from your USB drive?

Although we have a separate Unix server (and hosted Linux server for our web site), I'm only talking about virtualizing Windows Server 2003 OS, so I would definitely look towards Virtual Server 2005.

Thanks for all the help!

bhaf
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by:Jeffrey Kane - TechSoEasy
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Well, for starters, SBS not only has OWA included but it's configured automatically for you.  Generally the advice from "others" is based on what they know of Enterprise servers... not SBS which is uniquely designed to work all together in a single machine.

The basic "limitations" are as follows:

1.  There can be only ONE machine running SBS on a network.  This is not really a limitation as you can have as many other servers on your network as you like (well, up to 75 -- see #3)

2.  SBS does not support domain trusts or child domains.  Again, in a small network this is hardly a limitation.

3.  Only 75 users, computers, or devices can connect to the server at one time.

That's it!

You can read a great overview of SBS for ITPros which lists a bit more info about these and a couple of other things to be careful of when deploying an SBS here:  http://sbsurl.com/itpro

As for backing up the vhd, it takes just about 10 minutes to copy, and the full cycle of rebooting keeps the server off-line about 25 minutes each night.

Jeff
TechSoEasy
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by:bhaf
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I split the points to thank you all for your thoughts as I thought all were relevant to my situation and gave me things to think about. I have not decided about virtualization yet, but think I will investigate it more and hopefully set up a test environment with/for it. As an aside, I'm also going to look into whether doing a downgrade to Windows SBS might make sense for us.

Thanks for your help.

bhaf
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by:trarthur
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Vmware Server is free as well.

http://www.vmware.com/products/server/

Good luck with your decision!
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by:bhaf
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FYI, I just got the following from GFI support:

"Faxmaker is not supported on a virtual server. Brooktrout fax boards can be installed on the host OS, but will not be detected by the virtual machine."

So that's another con for us.

bhaf
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by:Jeffrey Kane - TechSoEasy
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Um... SBS is not a "downgrade"... just fyi.

Also, I have a Brooktrout TrueFax100 in my machine and it works just fine.  I don't use GFI FaxMaker, however.

Jeff
TechSoEasy
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by:me-sam
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Hi I have Vmware 4.1 ESXi and I happen to have a BrookTrout TR1034 which I've installed into the VM Host Machine. It seems the pcie to pci express bridge and then the BrookTrout which is identified in the Vsphere app as a Motorola MPC8245. There is a chip on the board of the brooktrout MPC8241.. well I did install the card in Windows 2003 VM.. but when I try to configure it or go into Device Details, the VM freezes up/hangs.. then the Host Machines crashes and says error LINT motherboard interupt. Contact vender.
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by:Jeffrey Kane - TechSoEasy
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That's a whole different story than the above.  ESXi does not support fax modems on the host.

Jeff
TechSoEasy
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