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Keys to a Successful Virtual Infrastructure Implementation

A senior systems engineer who oversaw his organization's virtual infrastructure deployment has some valuable advice for those ready to make the VM leap.

id you ever notice how IT trends tend to be cyclical, mirroring trends in clothing styles and television shows? Women are wearing bell-bottoms again and we're watching a lot of cop shows these days, just like back in the 1970s.In IT, we are running virtual machines (VMs) on Intel platforms just as we were doing 20 years ago on mainframes.

But today, the virtualization movement is much larger because we can virtualize on industry-standard x86 platforms, which form the majority of desktop, laptop, and server shipments and enable much cheaper virtualizations than mainframe systems did. We can run multiple operating systems on a single physical system and share the underlying hardware resources, which not only saves money but also simplifies system management.

And let's not discount the portability of today's VMs. A VM running on a Dell server can be moved to an IBM server and then over to an HP server, all without making any changes to the VM. That is a giant step forward from where we were 30 years ago.

The company I worked for decided to check out virtualization to reduce costs. We chose VMware because it is the market leader and its ESX server product gave great performance for the cost. Our team consisted of an architect and three engineers. We had help from other groups as needed, but that was the core group that got it implemented. We spent several months training and using VMware ESX Server before implementing it enterprise wide. Today, we have dozens of hosts running hundreds of VMs.

Comparing the differences between each product and determining which is best is beyond the scope of this article (See Sidebar. Major Virtual Infrastructure Players). Suffice it to say, you can pick the best product yet still fail miserably in your virtualization project if you do not plan well. Let's talk now about how to be successful implementing a virtualization product at your company.

A Step-by-Step Process

When the company I worked for decided to adopt a virtualization solution, they chose VMware ESX Server for a multitude of reasons. We wanted to go with the market leader and use the product that would allow the greatest use of virtualization, while maintaining the lowest possible costs and minimizing hardware. We found that the main players for us were VMware and Microsoft, as the others were way too expensive or didn't support Microsoft as a VM. Comparing the number of VMs against the total ROI and TCO, VMware ESX was the best choice.

We spent the first few months learning about the product, completing extensive research on how to set up and configure it, and determining which servers would be virtual and which physical servers to migrate to a virtual environment. We finally went live with our implementation after five months.

We started with the lowest-risk servers—our test servers—in case there was an issue. When all went well with the test servers, we moved on to disaster recovery and staging servers. Finally, we went after the CPUs with the lowest utilization, migrating them to a virtual environment with VMware's P2V Assistant. VMware P2V is a migration tool that transforms an image of an existing physical system into a VMware virtual machine.

Note: In addition to VMware's P2V tool, PlateSpin has a product that works nicely in this area.

At first, we fielded a lot of questions from our developers and users about VMware and how we were using it. Surprisingly, the biggest doubters were members of our IT department. We had to prove to them that virtualization was a good strategy for the datacenter, both in terms of productivity and cost savings. Today, the same people who questioned "going virtual" are the ones who complain when they can't virtualize their projects.

Two years later, we have hundreds of virtual machines running on several dozen VMware ESX Servers. Virtualization has been invaluable in our disaster recovery strategy, because we can swap out a failed server with a spare we keep just for this purpose, reboot the virtual machines onto the new machine, and be up and running in about 45 minutes.

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