Small businesses running one application per Windows server probably aren’t maximizing the use of that server, but they haven’t had many other options up until recently. Windows historically hasn’t done a good job of supporting multiple applications per server.  But the advent of "virtualization" software is making it easier for smaller companies to better utilize their x86 systems. 

With virtualization, one physical server can host multiple virtual machines -- think of them as individual servers residing in one box. Multiple applications, even those running under different operating systems, can share the same physical box. This allows small and mid-size companies to not only consolidate systems and save costs, but it means they can undertake other projects, such as creating a mirror of their business’ critical applications for disaster recovery and business continuity, without having to deploy an equivalent number of new servers.

The server virtualization vendors have figured out that some smaller businesses are as eager for their products as large enterprises. Earlier this year, leading virtualization vendor VMware unveiled a bundled offering aimed at smaller customers. It consists of its free, hosted VMware Server -- small and mid-size businesses already account for 70 percent of downloads of this software -- plus its VirtualCenter management platform and enterprise-class support for $1,500.

Benefits of virtualization

Server virtualization technology for the x86-server environment enables businesses to run multiple applications, even though they may use different operating systems such as  Windows or Linux. Virtualization creates isolated “virtual” machines within a single physical server. This translates into benefits for server consolidation and utilization, and business responsiveness and continuity, among other features. VMware, an EMC company, is the leader in the space, with its bare-metal hypervisor VMwareESX Server, a product that starts at around $3,500. But Microsoft is a competitor, with Microsoft Virtual Server, as well as companies such as XenSource and Virtual Iron, which sell commercial value-added solutions based on the open-source Xen hypervisor.

Smaller businesses actually stand to get more out of their investments in virtualization  technology than large enterprises. Larger businesses, because of the processor and distribution complexity of their networks, typically are virtualizing less of their server infrastructure than smaller companies. In small and mid-size businesses, x86-based Windows or Linux servers likely make up a bigger proportion of foundational infrastructure, says John Sloan, senior research analyst at Info-Tech Research Group.

“If they’re consolidating 40 or 50 servers on fewer physical boxes and getting better utilization, they are applying virtualization to the lions’ share of their infrastructure,” Sloan says. The tipping point for virtualization adoption starts at about 100 employees, according to Info-Tech Research, and “when you get up to 500 employees you see a fairly strong contingent that, if not actually deploying virtualization in production environments, are at least moving towards doing that,” Sloan says.   

Smaller businesses often embrace virtualization technologies in order to be more responsive to their business counterparts. With virtualization, provisioning new applications is as easy as creating a new virtual machine. “They want to avoid costs as much or more than big companies, and they want to be very responsive to getting new servers up and running,” says Andrew Hillier, co-founder and CTO of CiRBA, Inc. CiRBA’s software helps companies analyze data center assets, fix upon a strategy for virtualization or application stacking to improve efficiency and utilization, and map out how to move to and monitor these new environments.

Challenges for small businesses

In smaller businesses looking to implement a virtualization strategy, it’s particularly critical to analyze configurations for technical factors -- such as servers that use the same storage -- to see what could go together. In addition, businesses need to examine  workload constraints -- such as CPU, memory, and disk I/O requirements -- to see what servers and processes actually fits together, rather than randomly coupling virtual machine systems.

“If you’re not doing due diligence, just slapping things together and saying ‘I’ll change it if it doesn’t work,’ that’s not great,” Hillier says. Imagine the potential disaster of combining together four servers with non-overlapping maintenance windows into four virtual machines. “If the maintenance windows don’t overlap, you can never do hardware maintenance again,” he says.

Smaller businesses tend to rely primarily on local storage, but both Sloan and Hillier advocate consolidating onto a storage area network (SAN) in conjunction with a virtualized server environment, to reap the greatest benefits and ensure availability. “With a SAN you can do things like move a virtual machine from one physical box to another, as the files are all on the SAN,” says Sloan. Products from virtualization vendors such as VMware now support iSCSI, which is a more cost-efficient way than Fibre Channel for small businesses to build a SAN.