The Virtualization Room

Apr 9 2010   7:55PM GMT

Branch office virtualization: Formula 1 in a grocery-shopping world

Alex Barrett Alex Barrett Profile: Alex Barrett

Feedback from my recent article on server virtualization in branch offices suggests that virtualization still has a long way to go in those settings.

FBL Insurance in West Des Moines, Iowa has a single VMware ESX host at each of nine branch offices throughout the state but isn’t particularly satisfied with the level of availability that brings them, said Kent Altena, technical engineer for the firm.

“VMware ESX 3.5 is the source of a lot of angst at the state offices, because the single box is a point of risk,” Altena said.

At the same time, “we knew we had to give them something,” Altena said. “We couldn’t just let them sit there.” Altena said.

Despite their reservations, the firm decided that, for the cost, the risk of running a single ESX host was an acceptable solution. But when it comes time to upgrade, Altena said the firm will probably opt to add a second VMware box and leave the old box in there for failover purposes. At the same time, FBL decided to invest in a dual-controller Hewlett-Packard MSA SAN, to provide shared storage for the ESX hosts when the time comes.

Likewise, David Michel isn’t thrilled about virtualization at the four branch offices of Turner Padget, a South Carolina law firm. The issue there is the single point of failure of the Riverbed Steelhead appliances running its Riverbed Service Platform (RSP). But it was cheaper than what they were doing — a single VMware ESX host. Bringing in WAN optimization technology with a Steelhead appliance eliminated the need for a second T1 line required with new VMware hardware. Michel estimated that the Riverbed approach would cost about 60% less over three years and deliver return on investment (ROI) in 8 months.

The high cost of storage and redundancy in the branch is the raison d’etre for VM6 Software, a startup out of Toronto, Canada that offers a turnkey virtualization solution targeted at SMBs and branch offices. Based on Windows Server 2008 Hyper-V R2, the VM6 VMex includes two servers in an active cluster, a virtual SAN made up of locally attached drives, and an integrated management console familiar to Microsoft specialists. In the branch, VMex costs up to 70% less than a comparable VMware-based offering and at least 30% less than comparable physical infrastructure, said Eric Courville, VM6 founder and chief operating officer.

But even though Hyper-V — especially running on Windows Server 2008 Standard Edition — presents some cost savings over VMware, IT managers at existing VMware shops want no part of it.

“Why would I want to learn and support another hypervisor?” asked FBL’s Altena. “If I were already a Hyper-V shop, sure, but why would I want to spend the time and money for training on ESX all over again?”

A first generation version of VM6’s VMex was actually delivered on VMware, but Courville said its target market is more comfortable with Windows than with the Linux-ish ESX. Courville likened existing VMware data centers to Formula 1 race car teams, with expensive, high-performance systems that require the expertise of specialized mechanics to keep them running.

“But what if I can’t afford a Formula 1, but I still need a car to go to work and get my groceries?” Courville said.

The VMex delivers the equivalent of a “commercial car” that meets the needs of the branch office, at a reasonable price, he said.

That said, if market demand proves VM6 wrong, “there’s nothing technically preventing us from going with VMware down the road,” Courville added.

2  Comments on this Post

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  • CGrossmeier
    Why not just run the FREE version VMware ESXi? There is no "Linux" style interface since all management is down from the VI Client (also free) from a Windows OS? Seems like a simple solution to a Windows Admin who works in a VMware shop that is trying to be cost concious.
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  • Alex Barrett
    CGrossmeier, At FBL, the cost of the ESX license was moot because they had an enterprise license, IIRC. The problem with free ESXi as I understand it is it doesn't solve the redundancy issue. People still want to have two servers to be able to failover if something goes wrong. The whole 'all your eggs in one basket' problem. And in VMware land, if you want HA, you have to pay.
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