Virtual What?

Sep 30, 2021 | Uncategorized

I know that everyone is just dying to know the ins and outs of virtualization – I’m going to make sure you can amaze your friends with your knowledge on this subject. Your neighbors will be amazed with your ability to speak on this fascinating IT topic, so be sure you direct them to this blog so they can educate themselves as well.On a more serious note, virtualization is becoming more and more common, even in smaller businesses. You should have at least a passing acquaintance with it so that you are less likely to fall prey to people selling you the “latest and greatest” when it actually might not be best for your business.

Virtualization in a Container

So, what exactly is virtualization? For the purposes of this conversation you can think of it as creating one or more computers inside a single computer. This is most commonly done on servers. It used to be that one physical server was only one server… but not anymore!To help understand this topic we’ll be using PICTURES!!First, think of a physical server. It is a real thing you can touch that has all the fun bits in it that make a computer go (a processor, RAM, hard drives, network cards, etc.). On this physical box, which is referred to as a host, I’m going to install a special operating system, such as VMware vSphere or Microsoft Hyper-V.

A Physical Host

Once we’ve loaded this special operating system we can create virtual computers on the host using normal operating systems, such as Windows 10 or Windows Server 2012. Mac OSX could also be used but it requires special hardware. These virtual computers are called guests.

A Physical Host with Virtual Machines

A single host can have from one to hundreds of guests on it, depending on how much computing power it has. The guests (the virtual computers) all use the physical hardware of the host (the physical computer). The operating system on the host makes sure to parcel out the resources needed to the guests, and the guests just see what the host shows them.Now you might be wondering why you would do this kind of thing, besides “Because we CAN!”. The real answer is that this kind of set up can lead to significant savings in space, power usage, and hardware purchases, letting you scale more easily as your computing needs grow.The key that is allowing virtualization to really reach the masses is the advent of multi-core processors. I’m sure that “multi-core processor” is just as alien to most of you as if I started writing this blog in Aramaic (don’t worry, I’m not going to), so let me explain that and why it matters.

Multi-Core Processors, an aside

Back in the “old days” when we had to push our electrons through our processors uphill, both ways, a processor would only do one thing at a time. They were able to get these old processors to go really, really, really fast, so it seemed like they were processing more than one thing at a time to us humans, but they really weren’t, they were just switching rapidly between tasks. In order to process more than one thing at a time you actually had to get a computer that had two processors in it, which was really expensive. Those computers were generally either servers (which would most of the time max out at 4 or 8 processors) or a specialized workstation for engineers or software developers.At some point Intel did something called Hyper-threading (aka HT), which sort of made your processor act like it was two and could sort of multi-task like it was two (sort of).Eventually processors stopped getting faster for a variety of technical reasons (if you want to find out what those were you can ask us or spend some time reading Wikipedia). Once the rate of speed increase started to slow, the manufacturers had to find SOMETHING to keep you buying new hardware every 3 to 5 years (joking, sort of), so they decided to try and make a single processor that was actually two-in-one and introduced them to the market in 2005. They called these two-in-one processors dual core processors. Today your normal PCs and Macs can have up to a quad core processor with Hyper-threading, so it would appear as if you had 8(!) processors in your computer. By contrast, you can easily get servers (if you can afford them) with 4, 24 core processors that Hyper-thread, which would be like having 192 processors on a single, physical server.

Now Back to the Main topic of Virtualization

So, what would you do with a server that had 192 processors in it (and costs over $200,000)? These days, you turn it into a virtual host and run a bunch of virtual guests on it. It is possible that a company would have two or more pieces of software that can’t reside on the same server for some reason. So instead of having 2 or more physical servers you just buy a single physical server and run virtual guests on it and put the software that doesn’t like each other on different guests.

Ok, I can see how that would be great for a Fortune 500, but how does that help me?

Glad you asked. Even small companies can benefit from having a virtualized infrastructure. Traditionally, in a small business, you have a single server that does everything. It is a file server, a domain controller (which handles logging in to all your computers) and also has all your applications on it. By virtualizing, you can split those tasks up into different guests so that they don’t affect each other as much. For example, upgrading or rebooting one guest doesn’t impact the others. It is actually a best practice to have your domain controller be a different computer than everything else, and virtualization allows even the smallest business to do this.

A Physical Host with 2 guests on and one off

Another benefit to virtualizing your hardware is that you can upgrade your host more easily or distribute the virtual machines to different physical hosts. In the old days, to transfer a server you’d have to buy a new server, install the operating system, install all the applications you needed, then transfer the data from the old server to the new server if you needed to add more processing power to it or upgrade it in some other way. Now, if your guests need more resources than is on your host (and you have spare machines and the appropriate licensing), you can actually migrate the guests from one host to another (possibly even across the country) without ever having to turn them off or disrupt their use! Or, if you are going to upgrade a physical host you can transfer the guests to a different host, upgrade the original host and migrate back. Or if you can’t upgrade the host anymore you just keep them on the migrated server.

Migrating a guest between hosts - Step 1

We need to migrate the File Server from Host A to Host B to improve performance on Host A.

Migrating a guest between hosts - Step 2

With the right software and licensing we can tell the File Server guest to move without even turning it off.

Migrating a guest between hosts - Step 3

We’ve moved the File Server from Host A to Host B without interrupting service or any down time.

Backup and recovery is also easier and less prone to failure on virtualized systems, which means that if something does go wrong, the odds of getting everything back up and running quickly are much greater.

Virtualizing PCs

Someone might come to you and tell you about how they can move all your stuff onto your (or the cloud’s) servers. Even your desktop computer! You replace those pesky desktop computers with thin clients or terminals. All your stuff will now be super secure, backed up, and all that ails you will be fixed. It will also be cheaper than your current setup of having “old-fashioned” computers at every desk. Cats and dogs will live together and there will be peace on Earth! THE FUTURE IS HERE!!!This set up, which is called Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI), actually does make sense for certain people in certain situations. Let’s go over those now. The most common reason for doing this is because your users constantly change where they are and which computers they are using, but need access to “their” desktop no matter which computer they are on. Like in a hospital where doctors and nurses move around.You might also benefit from VDI if you are running a bunch of computers that are open to the public, or students, and need to be able to “wipe” them after each use. For instance, a library or school.VDI will only really work well if the following are all true:

  • You have a GREAT connection from the terminals back to the server. If that server is on premises then that is likely to be the case, but if it is “cloud” hosted, then you’re going to need AT LEAST a 20Mb fiber connection.
  • You don’t have many, or any, things that plug directly into the computer. Things like check scanners, credit card readers, etc. don’t function well (or at all) in these set ups, or you are forced to choose between a very small selection of devices which are generally more expensive than normal.
  • You don’t do any heavy graphics stuff, such as graphic editing or CAD design. While this can be done, in theory, in this style environment, these deployments almost always fail.

So basically, unless you are a fairly large hospital, doctor’s office, school, or library, VDI is most likely NOT a good choice for you. The promised money savings, however, oftentimes disappear for smaller clients for a variety of reasons:

  • You now have a more complicated, and expensive, software licensing situation
  • Your servers have to be more robust
  • Your tech staff will need specialized training to deal with the extra complexity (and thus be more expensive)
  • Your internet bill will likely be much higher than it would be otherwise since you likely need a fiber connection. If you don’t have a fiber connection, you are likely to experience SEVERE performance issues.

Additionally, we often find that most VDI deployments actually end up using a standard PC instead of a thin client because they need to interface with some device that you can’t otherwise access. The last thing to consider is that if your internet connection does go down, you won’t be able to do any work until it is back.

My Eyes Glazed Over and I Think I Drooled on Myself. Can You Condense It for Me?

No worries, it happens to all of us from time to time. If it happens to you often, then I recommend you should see a doctor about that. But I digress…The long and short of it here is that local virtualization for servers *is* actually likely a good idea for all but the smallest offices (and possibly even them). Moving your servers to the cloud is definitely a possibility, but something to be considered carefully. Virtualizing your desktop computers is likely *not* something that you want to do right now. Before taking that plunge it would be a really good idea to get a second, third, and possibly fourth opinion.Thinking about replacing your server? Don’t know if you should virtualize or not? Need a second (or third or fourth) opinion on something IT related? Sawyer Solutions is here to help. Call us at 844-488-7767 or contact us here.