Shopping List: Virtualization And Opportunities For Custom Systems

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From many vantage points, 2010 has been one of the bumpiest transition years that the Information Technology channel has seen. Put aside the discussions over whether businesses will be migrating away from Windows XP and to Windows 7. Forget about whether the iPad will revolutionize the way people live.

For business, the dance that many are now playing out with the advent of cloud computing and virtual data centers has been more awkward than an eighth-grade semiformal.

“Is it the right time to push my IT costs into the cloud?”

"Is hybrid computing the best approach?"

“Aren’t new servers with Intel CPUs enough of a reason to
keep everything on premise, where it’s within our control?”


The fact is, these are issues that simply go back to a bedrock
principle of successful system builders and solution providers: Don’t think of it as technology. Think of it as a way to help people be more successful at business.

For system builders who may be concerned that IT is migrating
into big, multibillion-dollar data centers with Tier-1 servers and away from their business model, the confusion that continues to stir through this transition is an advantage. The building blocks that are now at their disposal make custom system builders more competitive than ever when going head-to-head with other business models -- including hosted everything-as-a-service offerings.

When the custom system channel stacks up against big hosting
providers, there are still significant advantages to the system
builders who leverage virtualization:

• Citrix’s XenServer, VMware and Microsoft’s Hyper-V virtualization
offerings are all tailor-made for custom system builders
to provide greater and greater value through the supply chain;
• The current generation of industry-standard CPUs provides
major advantages in scale and flexibility in supporting
virtualization-based internal clouds that the big data centers
have a difficult time matching;
• Quality still counts. That means that system builders who can deliver
systems that are highly reliable, redundant and still cost-effective can receive a nice boost every time another headline pops up about a major data center crashing or suffering downtime.

With the keys being virtualization, components and quality, this plays right into the custom system builders’ wheelhouse.

Custom Systems Magazine takes a look at the basic building blocks in the market that don’t just allow system builders to keep up with the cloud’s success, but deliver significantly competitive solutions that actually keep them well ahead.

NEXT: Planning The Virtual Solution

Planning The Virtual Solution

For each business, there is a unique set of requirements -- from
security to availability to price. For custom system builders,
the technologies available for flexible, virtualized solutions
continue to increase. Intel, for example, provides nice two- and
four-socket CPU solutions for VM deployment -- and the
technology continues to impress us in the CRN Test Center Lab.

In particular, for higher-end solutions, we love the Xeon 5500 Series. For example, we’ve been able to take a server built with dual Intel Xeon 5570 processors, 24 GB of memory, Windows Server 2008 R2 running Hyper-V, and create what amounted to a data center in a box: a server with 20 “virtual servers.” And we were able to do it in about an hour by cloning the Hyper-V virtual machines.

More recently, on the lower end of the scale, we found that a simple, sub-$400 tower server, built with an Intel Core i5 processor, was also able to support Microsoft’s Hyper-V technology (with virtualization
enabled in the BIOS).

Beyond the CPU, virtualization is critically dependent on memory -- even in deployments targeted at small and midsize enterprises. For example, while the Core i5 solution did support Hyper-V, the server itself was built with 8 GB of DDR 3 and 1,333 MHz -- and that was barely enough to support two, simultaneously running virtual machines.

For solutions like file-and-print serving, or basic small-scale network management, that might be fine. But with a more ambitious solution -- like transaction processing, for example -- the CRN Test Center has found that at least double the memory (16 GB) and dual CPUs have the reliability that a lower-end solution does not.

NEXT: Evaluating Virtualization Solutions

Evaluating Virtualization Solutions

The most common enterprise virtualization solutions are Xen-
Server, VMware ESXi and Microsoft’s Hyper-V, which is a component of its Windows Server 2008 R2. Each deserves a good evaluation by system builders to determine which will work best for partners and customers:

XenServer: Citrix provides XenServer as both freeware or
with licensing fees of $1,000, $2,500 or $5,000 that provide
additional functions and services, including high availability, memory optimization, host power management, role-based administration, lifecycle management and site recovery.

On virtualization-capable processors, XenServer is no more than a 20-minute installation -- including the server software and the XenCenter desktop management console. It provides a nice gateway to enterprise virtualization from both a functionality and investment standpoint for the end user, while giving system builders and solution providers nice options as well (including features of Citrix’s channel program).

For smaller businesses, XenServer keeps costs down, although managing the complexity while scaling up or scaling out (say to
a virtual desktop infrastructure or VDI) when a business’ needs
change, could be a challenge if not road-mapped out properly between the system builder, the VAR and the customer.

VMware ESXi: VMware is the big daddy in the enterprise virtualization world for good reason -- it’s been not just a market
share leader but a mindshare leader as well. In the CRN Test
Center lab, we’ve been paying close attention to ESXi (formerly “ESXi Single Server” or “Free ESXi”). While other enterprise versions of VMware’s hypervisor technology work well, we think that for most custom system builders VMware ESXi should be a good, initial point of focus for most solutions in which they’ll be integrating virtualization into the box. One key reason is the solid, stable virtualization that can be delivered when installed on even low-end server hardware. (In the CRN Test Center Lab, it’s been a snap to install, deploy and manage on low-end tower servers running Intel dual-core Xeon CPUs.)

VMware’s upgrade path is a solid one, its overall product line is robust, and its channel support is mature. For technical as well as practical reasons, many system builders will want to consider VMware as their first option for integrating virtual server solutions with industry-standard hardware.

Microsoft’s Windows Server 2008 R2 Hyper-V: This offers
perhaps the least muss and fuss for many system builders. We’ve
liked Hyper-V since we had our first preview of the technology a couple of years ago; Microsoft has designed software that truly puts a lot of power into the hands of everyone in the value chain. For small and midsize businesses, we like the fact that Hyper-V takes out their two biggest detriments to IT: cost and complexity.

On the higher end, the CRN Test Center has been able to
push the limits of single-server virtualization using a server with Server 2008 R2 and Hyper-V, built with two CPUs from Intel’s Xeon 5500 Series and 24 GB of memory (as noted earlier). On the lower end, we found it fascinating that we could enable virtualization in a Core i5-based server and activate the Hyper-V role in a server with 8 GB of RAM.

System builders can play an integral role in not just designing and building virtualization-based solutions, but also in working with VAR s to make sure best practices are used in their deployment.

For example, while server consolidation was seen a decade ago as IT’s answer to server sprawl, virtualization creates the potential for a “virtual sprawl” that can become just as inefficient, ineffective and unmanageable as physical sprawl.

Especially for small or midsize businesses, which may be tempted to create virtual appliances and virtual servers for any number of solutions, from e-mail servers to collaboration to security, the risks run deep. A panoply of virtual servers and virtual environments -- regardless of how inexpensive they are to deploy -- can create problems ranging from security holes to performance bottlenecks
to licensing issues. At least with physical servers in physical data centers, there was a limit to how much IT could be deployed.

The antidote: Simple asset management -- even with free solutions, like those offered by Spiceworks—can be preinstalled and deployed with ease. System builders who install or pre-install virtualization solutions will want to consider offering at least a basic or standard version
of IT management software as well, or at least make it part of the dialog with VAR s and their customers.

The CRN Test Center likes Spiceworks in Windows environments, particularly because it is easy to set up, is a powerful asset inventorying and management tool, and it is free. Its ability to recognize, track and provide insight into virtual servers as well as physical devices is solid. This means system builders, their channel partners and customers can maintain out-of-the-box insight into their virtual inventory, potential security holes and performance bottlenecks.

The bottom line: System builders have all the tools at the
ready to compete tooth-and-nail with large hosting companies that are pulling business into the cloud. They can use industry-standard components, an array of software-based virtualization solutions and management tools to compete on performance, availability, flexibility and price.

From one disruptive period in the history of the industry to another, system builders and VAR s have succeeded and even outflanked better-funded Tier 1 vendors with their ability to work quickly, adapt and customize solutions. Virtualization and questions over cloud computing offer another such opportunity, and one that we believe will put both the custom systems channel and value-added reseller channel in the driver’s seat now and in the coming months and quarters.

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