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Posted Date: 4/9/2012

SMBs Turn to Virtualization to Cut Costs and Spike Productivity

By Julie Ritzer Ross
Until recently, the transition to a virtualized server, desktop, and/or storage mode was a move executed primarily, if not exclusively, by larger enterprises. However, SMBs’ interest in virtualization—fueled by such factors as the desire to reap cost savings and gain business agility as well as the increasing affordability of enabling technologies—is on an uptick. In a recent survey by Symantec (www.symantec.com), 70 percent of SMBs queried said they are considering some flavor of virtualized technology implementation, while Techaisle pegged worldwide SMB spending on virtualization at $952 million last year; rapid growth is expected going forward, according to Tavishi Agrawal, an analyst at the San Jose, Calif.-based technology market research firm.

SMBs taking the virtualization plunge will clearly need to partner with VARs, who stand to make what one source calls “good money” in the space. The main catalyst for such potential opportunities: Virtualization in one form or another suits a broad range of markets and, accordingly, a wide swath of channel players specializing in myriad vertical segments.  “There are doors open across the board,” from the business size and market standpoints alike, asserts John Pearring, manager of sales, STORServer (www.storserver.com). Pearring says even the smallest organizations with as few as three employees are engaging his company’s VAR partners to handle virtualization projects. These engagements run the gamut, from configuring virtual storage solutions to eliminating the need for major software upgrades by using virtualization to rejuvenate legacy applications, including DOS and Linux.

Steve Saslow, vice president of VAR Information Technology Group (IGT), North Haven, Ct., concurs. ITG, whose vendor partner roster includes, but is not limited to, PanoLogic (www.panologic.com), Appriver (www.appriver.com) and Dell (www.dell.com),  has seen considerable demand from healthcare providers for zero-client virtual desktop applications that allow physicians to access, from multiple endpoints and electronic medical records (EMRs), similar patient data and research material residing on a single computer.

In a different vein, ITG recently completed a deployment for an accounting firm with 22 PCs and three legacy servers. The latter were eliminated in favor of a single virtual exchange server for data maintenance.

“Contrary to what you might think, virtualization in healthcare is big business as providers try to improve patient care through (enhanced) information-sharing, while decreasing the high potential for breaching privacy regulations that comes, for example, with leaving computers on in every examination room rather than plugging into a virtual desktop as needed,”  Saslow states. “But manufacturing and professional services offer just as many revenue streams.”

The manufacturing, media and professional services (architecture and engineering) sectors are especially ripe for virtualization of CAD applications, adds Adam Juhl, CEO of IMSCAD, a Citrix (www.citrix.com) and Autodesk (www.autodesk.com) VAR that handles SMB and larger clients from offices in London, UK and New York City. “They are beginning to recognize virtualization as a way to better harness CAD while minimizing the time needed to manage large groups of workstations and giving employees the option to better serve customers and enhance their own productivity by bringing the software apps anywhere they travel,” Juhl observes.

Explaining the Benefits
Despite the seemingly widespread appeal and applicability of virtualization, VARs must exercise carefully honed best practices in order to truly capitalize on its profit potential. Fully explaining to prospects the benefits of virtualized platforms—while debunking common myths and presenting a solid business case—is paramount. In touting server virtualization, lower capital expenses for hardware merits major emphasis, asserts Phil Magnuszewski, director of data center technologies at Carousel Industries, an  Exeter, R.I.-based technology solutions consulting firm and provider whose virtualization-oriented customer projects incorporate solutions from vendors like VMWare (www.vmware.com) and Microsoft (www.microsoft.com).

“In many cases, any given physical server is underutilized, with maybe 10 percent to 25 percent of its total processing power being consumed at any particular time,” Magnuszewski explains. “Converting each physical machine into a virtual one allows the same physical server to run multiple applications, boosting utilization and significantly decreasing investments in and spending on hardware.” He adds that by decreasing end-users’ physical server count, server virtualization also facilitates hardware administration, in turn driving down operational expenditures.

National Cathedral School for Girls in Washington, D.C. is experiencing a multitude of the advantages Magnuszewsi describes following a server virtualization initiative executed by Carousel Industries. The institution’s 22 physical servers were migrated to two VMWare ESX hosts, bringing a wide range of services—including web, file sharing and e-mail—into a single point of administrative management and tamping down maintenance costs. Creating and installing new virtual servers that support the introduction of new services requires one hour, versus the full work day or more previously needed by IT staff to deploy physical servers. VMWare vCenter virtualization management software creates a single point of administration and system monitoring, further reducing the IT staff’s workload and minimizing time required to maintain and expand the virtualized server platform.

Meanwhile, Benoys Architects, an IMSCAD client with a team of more than 400 professionals working from five design studios in the UK, Abu Dhabi, Hong Kong, Shanghai and Singapore, slashed its server management time by about 45 percent via an initiative that involved moving from 20 dedicated servers to eight servers virtualized via Citrix XenServer. A drastic reduction in power consumption was achieved as well, Juhl says.

VARs might also point out that consolidating servers through virtualization lets organizations fit more processing and storage capacity into an existing footprint, eliminating or at least delaying the need for costly construction projects. Server virtualization solutions that incorporate live migration capabilities can quickly and easily relocate virtual machines from one host device to another, allowing critical applications to remain up and running during power outages, hardware failures, and maintenance procedures, asserts VAR Guy Baroan, founder and CEO of Baroan Technologies, Elmwood Park, N.J.

“When it comes to disaster recovery, we are talking about a few minutes with virtualized storage and backup, compared to days with a traditional solution,” Baroan says. “Between this and the gains from increased utilization, there are few clients that take a bigger push to virtualize the server.”

As for promoting desktop virtualization, Magnuszewski advises resellers to “lead off by clearing up the misconception that in the long run, it is cheaper than replacing desktops—even if it does not seem that way.” Admittedly, he states, replacement desktop computers may be purchased for $600 to $800, or several hundred dollars less than desktop virtualization, which can “run close to $1,000 per seat. But when you total up the soft dollars derived from the benefits of taking desktops virtual, the grass looks greener on that side of the fence.”

Like server virtualization, desktop virtualization streamlines IT management—in this case because all users in a network view the identical golden image of the OS that resides on the server. Rather than multiple images, IT personnel need handle only that one image, and rectifying common problems—such as when one user installs on his or her computer a program that is incompatible with the OS—does not command significant manual effort and time.

Increased security is another plus here. Should an employee lose a laptop or other mobile device, only that hardware is sacrificed; data remains in the data center, where it has always resided. Malware becomes less of a concern as the desktop slate is wiped clean each time a user logs on; viruses “caught” from websites or email disappear in a day or so.

Productivity enhancements, too, stem from transitioning to a virtualized desktop platform. “Better security means improved business continuity, since users experience less downtime,” Magnuszewski says. “At the same time, since desktop images are housed in a data center, users can access their complete desktop environment from wherever they are and from whatever device they choose, even their own. And of course, if employees bring their own devices, hardware costs drop even further.”

Taking Precautions
Not surprisingly, careful project planning and marshalling of resources contributes equally heavily to VARs’ virtualization profitability picture. In scoping out server virtualization projects, sources recommend that channel players note the number of data centers involved, as well as the function of and number of users that rely upon each one. Also assessed should be the percentage of servers already virtualized, if any; the age of each server and its computing capacity, memory and storage capacity; and configuration. On the desktop side, they advocate that VARs note each unit’s age, computing and memory capacity, and operating systems, along with any connected devices. Only with this information in hand, Magnuszewski has found, can VARs help customers make the right decision about how much money to invest in virtualization and which servers should be virtualized.

Toward the same end, application priorities must be defined. Sources report that in completing this step, they identify the key applications utilized by the prospective client, the number of users per application, the number of application customizations that have already been completed, and major challenges posed by legacy applications.

“It’s also helpful to examine factors like user access methodology for each application, which ones are used the most—in terms of both number of users and time—and how each applications ranks in terms of CPU consumption and memory usage,” Magnuzewski remarks. He reminds resellers to remember that not all applications are a good fit for virtualization. Examples include mission-critical applications that perform well on the server(s) on which they are currently running (with high utilization), as well as those that are highly complex.

Kunal Patel, president of Phykentech, a PanoLogic VAR headquartered in Orlando, suggests that less experienced VARs speed the planning and implementation processes and minimize risk by seeking assistance from vendors and/or third-party firms. He also believes that when getting started in the virtualization arena, channel players are well-advised to avoid making simultaneous attempts to ramp up on the server and desktop virtualization fronts,

"The server virtualization scenario is very straightforward compared to the desktop virtualization scenario; we found that it is easier to cut one’s teeth at the back end, and then ease forward to the more complicated, user-facing side,” Patel asserts. He notes that servers are role-based and “fixed” in their “behavior” and run relatively few applications, rendering the scaling and deployment of virtualized server solutions an uncomplicated process. By contrast, desktops operate at the mercy of less predictable humans, have more users and run myriad applications at any given juncture; this combination leads to a complex virtualization scenario.

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