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Is it sensible to implement VMware in a two-server small business?

Posted on 2010-09-11
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I would appreciate some advice concerning the possible implementation of VMware in a small company of around 20 employees (rising to perhaps 30 over the next two or three years) running SBS 2003, to achieve high availability at least and fault tolerance at best.

The requirement is for a full recovery from a server outage within a working hour of failure.

I’ve looked at various options such as DoubleTake, but they are very expensive and require much fiddling about with storage and NIC drivers if the standby server is not identical to the primary, and an additional Windows Server license as well; also, the licensing requirements are complicated in regard to reverting back to the original hardware when it is repaired.

The fact that the server is SBS seems to make matters worse, as many vendors do not offer SBS-aware products. This particular server is running, in addition to Exchange, a core business application that uses a runtime instance of MS SQL, and another that uses SQL Express, though the server is not the Premium Edition.

VMware’s vMotion seems to offer an elegant solution to the above requirements but it is a very complex product that seems to have several gotchas, particularly in relation to small installations, though to be fair it is aimed at enterprise-class businesses that have the budgets for fibre infrastructures, clusters, and so forth.

The initial idea was to use local storage on VMware HCL-compliant Server 1 to host virtual server A that would actually doing the work for the company, with physical Server 2 running a copy of virtual server A in lockstep, on its own local storage. However, it seems that this configuration isn’t going to happen because, if I’m understanding correctly, VMware requires the presence of remote storage for HA and FT to be available.

This raises the question of what type of remote storage would offer the best value for the company. Fibre SANs are out of the budget and therefore out of the question, so, bearing in mind the fairly small number of users, will iSCSI NAS be adequate? If so, is such a NAS available that can run RAID 10 with a hot spare (five drives in all)? I’m aware that such a NAS is a single point of failure, but with the described configuration it’s as robust as I can imagine a single unit to be, and I very much doubt that the budget will stretch to two units.

If not, then it would seem that virtualisation may not be appropriate in this scenario, in which case what do other small companies with only a single server do to meet the need of rapid recovery from a hardware failure of that server? The server in question is currently backed up using Acronis TrueImage Server 9.1 - old, I know, but stable compared to current releases of the product, if the support forums are anything to go by. It does have the hardware-independent Universal Restore function, but it’s a black art getting that to work.

The long and short of it is that restoring from backups takes a lot longer than failing over to a second server, and vMotion appears to offer a way of doing the latter without driver and licensing issues.

The shrewd and discerning among you will have realised that I’m very new to virtualisation in general and VMware in particular, though I’m working my way through some fairly fat tomes on the subject, and I’m fortunate enough to have a couple of quad-core Dell servers to play with and make lots of interesting mistakes on without south-east England suddenly going dark and quiet. That said, I’m looking for a solid workable HA or FT solution that doesn’t have to have performance that the trading floor of the Stock Exchange would envy, doesn’t need endless massaging to keep it running well, and doesn’t cost the earth with the moon grated on top.

I would be grateful for wise counsel on the foregoing.
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Question by:Perarduaadastra
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bgoering earned 167 total points
ID: 33654955
It sounds like you have a pretty good grasp of the capabilities of VMware. While it was once somewhat true, it is no longer true that VMware is only for the large Enterprise environment. The vSphere Essentials package is aimed squarely at small and medium business market., Essentials ($495) provides licensing for up to three ESX servers, and supplies vCenter Server environment to support vmotion and HA. If you really want the Fault tolerance feature, that is only available with Advanced and above editions and your licensing costs will go up considerably.

If you have only a few Microsoft servers to virtualize consider purchasing a Windows 2008 R2 Enterprise edition license for each of your ESX(i) servers. I am guessing you will want to run your vCenter server as a virtual machine, and you have your SBS server. Each pair of Windows Enterprise licenses you buy (one for each ESX(i) server) allows you to run a total of four copies of Windows Server OS (any version) and vmotion them freely between your two ESX(i) hosts.

Shared Storage is a requirement for vmotion, HA, DRS, and FT if you go that way. FC is expensive as you noted, as well as complicated. Boty iSCSI and NFS appliances work well - be sure to select one that offers some internal fault-tolerence of its own. Look for things such as Dual Power supplies and multiple (at least two) storage processors. You can start with the HCL (http://www.vmware.com/go/hcl) to get some ideas. If you have 20-30 users I would probably look for SAS drives over SATA for performance. I would also go with more spindles to stripe across than two (as you described in your 5 drive RAID 10 w/hot spare scenario). The more spindles the better the performance - if you don't need the capacity just go with smaller drives.

Good Luck with your project
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by:John Hurst
John Hurst earned 166 total points
ID: 33654961
I would back up a step. If your business needs just one server for the foreseeable future, then I do not see the need for a VMware server. You can get decent NAS for short term backups (to get back up and running quickly) and have a further offsite backup strategy.

If you need two servers anyway, or will do soon (mail filter, BES, specialty application), then a VMware ESX Server can be had for less than the cost of two hardware servers and is definitely an excellent option for you.

I have a client that needed a new server, so we put in a VMware ESX server, then quickly needed a BES server, and then soon after, creating a specialty server proved necessary. VMWare was a good strategy in this client and they are most happy.

I have other clients with single servers, good backups and good reliability. They also are happy.

In any server, get top grade servers with top grade RAID cards and good disks. I use IBM and have some of these servers running for years non-stop. Drives fail occasionally, I swap in new drives under the maintenance contract and move on, not missing a beat.

... Thinkpads_User
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by:bgoering
ID: 33655040
Yes - one thing I have found when implementing VMware in shops that previously had no virtualization is that they can find all kinds of servers they need to run that they never did before because it was always to expensive to get a new server.

Beware of vm sprawl once you get your vSphere Essentials environment up and going!
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by:phantom024
ID: 33655459
I would agree that often in small shops with very few servers, sometimes brining in a small ESX deployment will pave the way to even more servers being put online since it becomes so easy to do, so be careful for server sprawl.

While I highly recommend VMware and think it can provide a lot, also keep in mind that things like vmotion, HA, and FT provide redundancy for hardware failures but they do not eliminate the need for a solid backup strategy.  VMware does offer the Data Recovery appliance that I have demoed but never used in production as it was not a fit for the large environment I work in, but this might provide a perfect backup tool for the small business (I am not sure off hand if this is included with vSphere Essentials).

I would also monitor the usage on the servers you are running.  Do you know how many IOPS are needed on the DBs?  It is possible that a small NAS system with SATA is sufficient and is usually cheaper than SAS disk arrays, but without knowing the load you are creating, it is tough to say.
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by:Perarduaadastra
ID: 33657607
Many thanks for your interest and your replies.

I appreciate that hardware redundancy and backup are entirely separate concepts; the backup system already in place has worked very well for both a complete restore and the recovery of individual files and folders when required, and backing up will continue regardless of whatever virtualisation is implemented.

What prompted the project was failure of the motherboard in the single server, and the downtime that this caused has made the company director very receptive to ways of avoiding such a situation in future. He is aware of the cost of the vSphere Essentials Plus Kit, but the Advanced Acceleration Kit (which he would need if he wanted to go down the FT route) is more than three times the price and probably exceeds his newfound receptiveness. Consequently, HA appears to be the way forward, because if it is implemented correctly then the one-hour window should be sufficient for full recovery.

In regard to the number of IOPS generated by the SQL and Exchange databases, I really can’t say at present, though if I can I will set up perfmon to record Monday’s activity (on the assumption that Monday will probably be the busiest day). To give a seat-of-the-pants indication of demand versus resources, the server has a simple 250GB SATA RAID1 array on an Adaptec 2420SA controller and there have been no user complaints about slow performance or delays in accessing network shares.

In summary then, if the IOPS requirement is not excessive, will an iSCSI NAS and two VMware HCL-compliant Dell quad-core servers (effectively one primary host running the SBS VM and one secondary host containing a duplicate SBS VM that can be quickly powered on and connected to the NAS containing the data) meet the requirement?
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by:phantom024
phantom024 earned 167 total points
ID: 33657952
I know you realize but I always have to state, I am shooting in the dark here since neither of us know the actual load generated by the server, but if the current setup is running on a RAID 1 with SATA disks, I would certainly think that a NAS/SAN solution operating with SATA would probably be sufficient for your needs.  Especially if your storage solution would contain more disks and possible run a RAID 10 for performance and redundancy

As far as actually having an additional complete copy of the VM on the same storage device, I am not sure if this is necessary.  You would need to somehow keep the copies synced together in order for the data to be valid if you wanted to bring it online.  My recommendation would be more to just be sure to have a template ready to deploy another copy of the OS, then you can use your current backup tool to restore the data to the newly deployed VM.  Or you can try the free Data Recovery appliance from vmware, it may not be necessary to continue to use your current backup software. As Data Recover is VMware's first step in to the backup game, your current solution may have some more refined options that keep you going with it, and that is just fine, but be aware that as you grow there are many backup solutions tailored for virtualization that can make your life as an administrator much easier.

I also agree that you probably do not need to get too concerned with FT.  FT is very cool, but there are a few items to consider regarding FT such as the current limit of 1 vCPU.  HA is great, and while not instant you will be no where close to the 1 hour window to boot up a VM in the event of a hardware failure.  In the case of failure of the VM, you will need to be sure that you can restore the data to a new VM during the window.

Also keep in mind that the jump to virtualization can complicate the networking portion of your infrastructure.  Do you already have the switching infrastructure to support a NAS/SAN?  I personally like to be able to put my storage networking on physically different switches, but you should at a minimum have vlan separation of your storage network for iSCSI and your normal LAN traffic.
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by:Perarduaadastra
ID: 33729476
Many thanks for the time and thought that all of you have contributed to this question. It seems that FT is simply too expensive in VMware, but HA would suffice if I can devise a method of keeping a VM copy of the production server VM in near sync so that the copy is at most only 15 - 30 minutes behind; I will investigate this. Snapshots may offer another approach to near-concurrent server copies, though Ithat means yet more homework for me to do (sigh).

This particular scenario may be a little unusual, and reading through my original question it seems that I may have been a little ambiguous in how I phrased the question; by two servers I meant one production server and one standby server. The company in question is very unlikely to need more than one server to run its business, but it needs a rapid failover of some kind in the event of server hardware failure.

Ultimately, what matters is being able to quickly present an identical server to the clients, thereby avoiding issues with licensing, drivers, and domain security, and VMware does seem to offer a realistic possibility of doing this, even if other products have to be involved.

I will wait a day or two for any further comments, and then award points and close the question.

Thanks again for the input.
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by:Perarduaadastra
ID: 33952618
Wow, how time gets away from you, or me at any rate; that was a very long couple of days!

I very much appreciate the counsel I have been given, and as each of you has contributed information and insight that I will use, I propose to split the points between the three of you, if that is acceptable.
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by:John Hurst
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Sounds fine to me as all of us has contributed. ... Thinkpads_User
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by:bgoering
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Sounds good
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