The Basics of Server Virtualization

Enterprise level organizations have been using server virtualization for over 15 years now. The technology not only allows your organization’s IT infrastructure to run with less down time and can be used as a base for back up and disaster recovery, it also lowers your cost of IT hardware and more importantly managing that hardware.

For a business owner, in particular one that is not technical, having server virtualization explained is not always easy. After all, it is somewhat of a revolutionary way of setting up your IT Infrastructure. In this 3 part post on the basics of server virtualization,  I hope to go over 3 items that will give you a better understanding of the technology

  • Server Virtualization Basics– In this section I hope to function as a “Server Virtualization for Dummies”. I won’t get very technical, but hope you will walk away with enough understanding to interpret what that IT guy you have on staff or your outsourced managed services IT guy is talking about when he talks about server virtualization or server virtualization software.
  • Types of Server Virtualization-There are a few vendors that offer different server virtualization platforms (or server virtualization software) each has some benefits for your business. Why invest with one server virtualization software vs the other is what I will discuss there.
  • Process for implementing server virtualization-When your internal IT manager or managed services provider suggests your organization virtualizes, having server virtualization explained might not be enough. You (and they) should put together a process to this use of server virtualization software. I have some ideas around putting that process together I’d like to share that very well may save you a lot of time money and effort.


Server Virtualization for Dummies

I have really never liked that term “for dummies” but if we can get beyond the ego part of it, let’s face it…it is probably accurate. When I explain server virtualization to someone who has not idea (or very little) and needs to have server virtualization explained to them in the most basic of terms, I like to reference those TV commercials that IBM had a few years back.(It’s a bit long @just over 2 minutes but I recommend you watch)



The point of the commercial is that as an organization grows, it keeps buying more and more physical servers to support more and more applications.

In most NON virtualized environments, a new server is purchased for almost every new application that is implemented. Marketing, accounting, HR, sales, executives all have applications and EACH is getting a server that costs money to purchase and manage. Here is the first thing my virtualization for dummies section wants you to understand:

You have probably at some point heard the comment from scientists that humans use less than 10% of their brainpower.  Well each of these purchased servers is the same in that the processing and storage power in many cases running a single application is likely using less than that. In many cases (print servers, file servers ect) they can be using as little as 3% of its processing power.

So, you ask “Why don’t we just run multiple applications on a single server until we have better server utilization than 3%?   Why not run a few accounting applications and a few marketing applications and a few HR applications on a singer server and get more use out of that server? Let’s run multiple applications until we have say 90% utilization.” This type of thinking is a good start to understanding virtualization however there is a big problem that can be explained in just 2 words:

Servers Fail

Yes servers a physical pieces of machinery and they fail. We have all experienced a server failing and not having access to the application that server, well…serves.  This server failure is the main reason we put single applications on each server. So when(not if) a particular server fails, we may lose one application while that server is fixed and brought back up, but at least we are not losing 5 or 10 applications at the same time. Can you imagine being the IT manager and having not some people calling you to fix one application, but the entire company calling you to fix 10 of them? That would be a nightmare.

This problem is at the core of all server virtualization software. If you can grab this next concept, then I can say I have done a good job explaining server virtualization. Putting on the server virtualization for dummies hat again, in the simplest of terms, server virtualization software like VMware “tricks” a server into thinking it is multiple servers. That’s it. That’s the basics of server virtualization. How does it do this? Again, pretty simple.  It places a layer of software called a hypervisor on the server that basically allows you to separate the operating system from the physical hardware.

Basics of Server Virtualization

All server virtualization software does is allow you to take all of the full pool of resources the server has to offer and carve them out for individual applications as needed. It also (again with this technical term) “tricks” the server into thinking it is multiple servers.

“But hey” you ask…”doesn’t that put multiple applications on a singer server, didn’t you just say that is the reason we don’t use a single server in the first place?”  If you are thinking along these lines then congratulations, you are paying attention! (You might even lose your virtualization for dummies status if you don’t watch out.)

The answer is simple. What used to be called “server clustering” where a very important (say e-mail) application would get not 1 but 2 servers running it just in case one went down.  A properly designed virtual server environment will NEVER have just 1 physical server even if a singer server has enough “brainpower” to support all applications” Using an IT consulting firm or an individual who understands how to measure the amount of servers in your environment needs becomes important when you have many applications. For small businesses, it can be as simple as having two.  Server virtualization software such as VMware or Microsoft or Citrix all, to some degree, are intelligent enough to realize that if one of the servers is to fail, all of the applications would be booted up automatically to the other running server keeping you applications up and running with little or no interruption of service.


So to recap, sever virtualization software allows organizations to get a grip on the amount of servers it buys and manages. The IBM video does a great job of showing how literally 10s or even hundreds of servers can be reduced to a manageable rack of servers.  The software “tricks” the physical servers into thinking it is multiple servers allowing you to use the resources as a pool to split up between multiple applications. Finally, a good virtual environment design should never have only one server. It should be set up so that applications have redundancy that if set up correctly is automatically managed by the server virtualization software.

In the next article on the benefits of server virtualization I will discuss the different types of server virtualization and what the differences are between the different server virtualization software. In the meantime, if you are looking for a great company to help with you simple or highly complex IT environment, feel free to get in touch by filling out a “Get started for free” request. Black Diamond Solutions, a Chicago based IT consulting firm with national reach,  will get a senior engineer on the phone with you to discuss whatever IT issues you may be experiencing.

Just think you are now a third of the way from shedding that Server virtualization for dummies tile!

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Michael Kupfer is the President and CEO of Black Diamond Solutions. Concentrating on virtualization and storage issues, he addresses the litany of challenges faced by businesses and provides optimal, cost-effective strategies that enhance technology infrastructure.

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