Virtualization Demystified (hopefully)
If you’re in IT, then you probably already know how virtualization can help you get the most out of your hardware, save space and energy in the server room, and reduce overall IT costs. The superior backup and disaster recovery options (and dramatically improved uptime) that virtualization makes possible may be old news to you as well. But, what if you are someone who knows very little about information technology? You may appreciate the value of some of the benefits I’ve mentioned in the beginning of this article, but sometimes that doesn’t paint an adequate picture for a business owner or decision-maker who is being asked to spend several thousand dollars on a new server solution. There are some informative YouTube videos, like this one from Dell, or this one from VMWare. However, I generally like to use an analogy to describe the benefits more easily to our clients, since they prefer that the explanation come directly from us, their IT service provider, rather than a website or video.
Imagine you are building a house. You have to start with a foundation. So, you pour one concrete slab to start with, but let’s pretend there is space nearby for others. Now it’s time to build the house itself. One difference between your “virtual” structure and a traditional one is the walls. With your virtual house, you’ll be able to shift the walls and room sizes at will, without having to commit to an addition or demolition like you would with a regular house. If the in-laws have to move in for six months, you can shift the wall between your living room and the guest bedroom, sliding it over to allow them more space. When they’re gone, just slide the wall back and get more room for watching TV.
You can also move your utilities around. Imagine being able to re-route the plumbing so that you can move your bathtub anywhere you feel like taking a bath. You can also move your kitchen lights to the garage temporarily for more light while you’re working on your car.
Are you following the analogy yet? The foundation of the house represents your server hardware, along with a hypervisor like VMWare ESX or Microsoft Hyper-V, which is the technology which allows for those movable walls and components. Virtualization removes the constraints and limitations that you would ordinarily have with a traditional server setup, where the applications, operating systems, and hardware are inseparable from each other.
Taking this analogy a step further, you can visualize how disaster recovery works, too. With a more traditional backup solution, like tapes or even simple cloud file storage, you would have to rebuild your system from scratch. It would be like having your house burn down, and though you were able to salvage your personal items contained inside, they’re now sitting in a pile on the front lawn. It would take days or even weeks to pick through your possessions and place them in your new home. As a matter of fact, you would have to wait for a new home to be built before you could move all that stuff there!
With your virtual home, your backups are like entire copies of homes, complete with copies of your furnishings, personal items and appliances. If the original home burns down, you would snap in one of the replica houses, and within minutes you would be comfortably inhabiting the new one. No long periods of being displaced or having to live in hotels and wait for insurance money to rebuild. Virtualization allows for taking “snapshots” of the entire system, rather than backing up file by file. What this means for you is much quicker restores, and no reinstalling of operating systems and applications.
I hope this analogy helps to explain the benefits of virtualization without the technical jargon that can confuse non-IT people. I realize this may be oversimplifying some pretty amazing technology, but I think it’s important for business owners and decision-makers to wrap their heads around virtualization and consider implementing it when it’s time to upgrade.