As more and more businesses begin to deploy virtualization broadly, we must begin to step back and reconsider the opportunities presented to us by this shift in datacenter architecture. Virtualization comes with new challenges and potential not only for cost savings but for aggressive project implementation. Small businesses, especially, when using virtualization tend to prepare themselves for projects that they could never have envisioned doing during the era of physical-only servers.
The big winners in this space of emerging virtualization opportunity are the open source operating systems such as Linux, OpenSolaris and FreeBSD. The reason that these particular operating systems have unique opportunities that Windows and Mac OSX do not is because of the way that they are, or can be, licensed. Each of these operating systems has an option by which they are available completely for free – something that cannot be done with Windows or Mac OSX.
Traditionally, when purchasing a new server a business would price out expensive hardware with relatively inexpensive software. An enterprise operating system, such as Windows, would typically represent a relatively small percentage of the cost of a new server. Even a small server would cost a few thousand dollars and Windows Server can easily be purchased for less than one thousand dollars. In this scenario a business looking to purchase a new server would see only a very small cost savings in opting for a “free” operating system since introducing a new OS has its own risks and the bulk of the cost of the new server is in the hardware which would still need to be purchased.
Given that equation, only a rare small business would consider the purchase of a non-Windows-based server. The opportunity for failure is too high given the risk of change and the cost savings are too small. Today, though, virtualization is commonplace and becoming more ubiquitous every day. Businesses virtualizing their infrastructure typically have excess capacity on their servers that is going unused. As these businesses and their IT departments begin to look to utilize this spare capacity they will increasingly find that the cost of deploying virtualized Windows Server remains high while the cost of deploying a virtualized Linux or OpenSolaris server is nominal – generally nothing more than the effort to do so without any capital expenditure or its associated risk.
The ability to deploy new servers, at any time, without any cost is a significant advantage that companies have not begun to truly comprehend. If a business wants a new web server, for instance, they can have one provisioned and built in thirty minutes without buying any licenses. Having redundant virtualization hardware means that a redundant web server can be had as well – again without any capital cost. Unlike Windows (or other commercial operating systems) there is no need to purchase a second license just to have a backup server.
This means that for the first time many businesses can begin to consider clusters as well. Typically the cost of licensing software for clustering was prohibitive but if that licensing becomes free then suddenly clusters become very attractive options.
Of course, as open source proponents will point out, the low cost of Linux and other free and open source solutions have long been reasons to move to these platforms, but this discounts the incredible shift in pricing structure that occurs only when spare usable capacity meets the previously existing free licenses. It is only because so many business have already implemented virtualization strategies, or are in the process of doing so, that this new opportunity truly presents itself.
The first challenge will be in getting businesses to begin to think of operating systems and application platforms as being free. The ways in which businesses may take advantage of this has yet to be seen. Businesses are so used to being hamstrung by the need to buy new hardware and expensive server software licenses for every new system deployment that the widespread availability of spare server images is quite novel indeed.
Of course, as with many new technology changes, it is the small and medium business space where the greatest change will likely take place. Large enterprises are already doing datacenter consolidation and do not necessarily have spare capacity available to them as their capacity plan already takes into account virtualization. But in the smaller business space where capacity planning is a practically non-existent practice we see a different type of opportunity.
What we typically see in small businesses moving to virtualization is an over-purchasing of hardware. This generally comes from a misunderstanding of how capacity planning and virtual guest interaction will occur in the virtualized environment but also from a desire to err on the side of overpowered versus underpowered and the nature of virtualization capacity planning being a bit of a “black art”. Because of this, however, many small businesses have server resources sitting idle. It is not uncommon to see a powerful server virtualizing just two server instances when there is capacity to virtualize a dozen or more.
It is this overprovisioning of hardware that offers unique opportunity. Many small businesses, and even medium sized businesses, may manage to effectively virtualize their entire existing server infrastructure leaving no further opportunity for cost savings through consolidation. At this point the spare capacity of the existing servers offers no further cost savings and can now be viewed as capacity for growth instead.
This begs the question of “What new deployment opportunities exist given these opportunities?” This question is difficult to answer as it will be different for nearly every business, but we can look at some commonalities to build a rough picture of where we may see new value presenting itself.
The most obvious new opportunity is in new web applications. Small businesses often would like to take advantage of free web-based applications but do not want to risk deploying new, low-priority applications to their existing Windows-based web server of do not even have a server available to do so. Creating one or more open source application servers is incredibly simple. Deploying a wiki, corporate web portal, a blogging engine or news site, bug or incident tracking application, microblogging platform (a la laconi.ca,) CRM, ERP or any of thousands of similar applications can be done quickly and easily with minimal cost using only “spare” time from the existing IT resources. Any number of internal applications such as these could bring value to the company and produce very little impact on a virtualization platform so many could be deployed utilizing only a small amount of excess capacity.
Beyond obvious web apps there are more feature-rich systems that could be deployed for no cost. A great example is the OpenFire instant messaging and presence server. Companies can suddenly roll out complete enterprise class, secure, internal instant messaging applications at no cost whatsoever. Another example is in monitoring systems such as Nagios, Zenoss or Zabbix – all of which are available for free and represent a real benefit for companies that currently have no such system. Enterprise monitoring completely for free.
Beyond new applications there is also an “environmental” benefit to be had. In an enterprise environment changes going into production go through a series of testing. Typically big businesses will maintain a development server environment, a user acceptance testing environment and then the production environment. For a small business to do this with Windows is extremely cost prohibitive as the servers in each environment need to be licensed. But with open source servers being virtualized using spare capacity deploying virtual servers for each of these environments is completely free and allows small businesses to test their own processes before making production changes giving them added stability previously unaffordable to them.
After all of these growth benefits there is one additional benefit to consider – flexibility. Because these new systems can be deployed and tested with no cost it provides a new opportunity for small shops to deploy open source solutions that may replace expensive Windows solutions that they are currently using. This could include replacing Exchange with Zimbra or replacing IIS with Apache or Active Directory with an LDAP server. Doing a project like this would be risky and potentially costly if the hardware and software had to be purchased up front. But if the project can be done, only using free time from the existing IT department, and can be done as a free “proof of concept” before looking to do a pilot and then full production replacement then risk can be minimized and the entire project can be effectively free.
While a full architectural replacement may be very aggressive for an average small business it is also a very significant potential cost savings. Moving completely to open source systems is not for everyone and should be evaluated carefully. The ability to evaluate a project of this magnitude, for free, is very important and small businesses should consider doing so to be sure that they are using the systems that make the most sense for their business model and needs rather than simply using the solutions with which they are already familiar or are already in place.
There are many additional ways in which free and open source products, deployed using existing, excess server capacity, can be used to expand the IT infrastructure of small businesses. Learning to seek out opportunities rather than seeking cost savings from IT is a new process for most small businesses and requires some relearning, but those that take the time to pursue these opportunities have many benefits to be gained.