Small Business Virtualization: Growth Through the Ages

As a small business we run a 100% virtualized environment and looking to migrate to a cloud, but the investment in IT to do this has been pretty substantial and for a cash strapped small business can be a many year process due to budget constraints and immediacy of other business needs. That is the key to a small business, the immediacy of business needs, but if you can step back and do a little planning, any small business can proceed along the journey from a physical environment to a software defined environment. There are many choices available to a small business depending on when they started this journey, existing investment, and where they wish to go. What choices are available now for a small business and where should we go as small business owners?

In the past, distant past for some small business, in order to grow we were required to also grow our IT departments in not only people but also equipment. For a technology company, that growth was pretty significant and recouping costs was not always as easy as it seems. Let’s look at an SMB that we will call WR.

Small Business Virtualization: A History

Now WR started as a typical technology company, it invested in hardware as it needed that hardware, as new contracts and requests were made. For a while it seemed WR was constantly buying hardware to meet these needs. Since this was before virtualization, there was nothing they could do. They looked into remote build and test labs, but they were either too expensive or did not meet their needs. So WR decided to recoup some of the expenses by buying second hand equipment as well as opening their own remote build lab with the ability to remotely power on and power off their systems (using hardware power controllers from APC). This service was limited to a select group of customers as WR still required the systems for their own build and testing. Eventually the lab grew to 20-30 systems of different makes, models, build levels, and testing environments.

The power consumption of this lab was incredible, so once virtualization became available, they started investing in virtual environments initially to just cut down the amount of power they were using. They were able to reduce their lab from 20-30 systems down to 4 systems plus a few specialized systems that were used only as needed. During this transition, WR discontinued their build lab as they did not want to impact the performance of their fledgling virtual environment and they did not have the same storage capabilities as before.

The next decision was about storage, do they grow local storage or do they move to high speed shared storage and they chose the later which was an investment in fiber channel. Today, iSCSI or NFS storage would be a possible solution, but at that time on fibre channel or local was the choice. It was a tough choice due to the initial outlay of funds for fibre channel arrays, cards, and cables. What convinced WR to go this route was the ability to consolidate into their virtual environment their main file server removing that specialized hardware from their mix. They gained more capability with a chance to grow their storage by adding more disk trays and disks into their fibre channel SAN. This started them down the path of maintaining a SAN even when other storage options became available, due to their continued investment in fibre channel. Rip and replacing everything would be considered a waste.

About this time WR was presented with another choice, they were outgrowing their initial virtual environment so they had to either upgrade their systems, impossible to do at the time, or buy new ones to replace the old. So they staged this in the year after the SAN purchase. WR has done this now five times: compute hardware replacements, SAN replacement, compute hardware replacements, and finally they now use blades with some room to grow as necessary. Each time getting faster and better systems over many years. They ended up donating the older virtual environments to schools for their use and selling one outright to another small business. This is where WR sits today, they no longer have any specialized hardware (except for the SAN, switches, firewalls, etc.) and they have drastically reduced their power consumption, cooling, and physical requirements.

Small Business: Choices

Now WR has some more choices to make, do they launch their business into a cloud or do they grow their environment some more. They already use cloud services when working with their customers such as Salesforce, (or dropbox), Citrix Go-To-whatever services, LogMeIn services, and many others on a regular basis, but should they move their investment into the cloud. This is the choice facing many small businesses and for some it is an easy choice for others it is a harder choice.

Do they go the VMware hybrid cloud approach that allows for immediate bursting of workloads into the cloud, or do they treat this as another hardware upgrade and move entirely to the cloud? The choice is daunting as the hybrid cloud approach allows them to maintain some control over their environment and use the cloud to augment their existing needs. If they instead move into the cloud, all that investment in people, process, and equipment fades away. They will need to retrain people to be cloud administrators instead of virtual environment administrators.

Or in keeping with their past, do they create their own cloud and offer space on it to other small businesses?

There are many choices for a small business going forward, some modern small businesses have chosen to live 100% within the cloud. If there is no cloud service they need then they do without. They use Google for email and collaboration, Salesforce for CRM, for file sharing, and other tools as necessary. Others have gone to a more hybrid approach that uses only the tools they need in the cloud and still maintain a data center/closet of their own. Others have hosted their systems within bigger data centers, but maintain a small setup for office use, and still others are trying to decide how they are going to grow.

There are many choices out their for a small business, which to choose is going to dictate how we proceed in the next steps. This is the same level of choice on networking faced by WR many years ago. For WR and many others the choice to use the cloud is also about their data, can they get their data there and back again. How can they control their data? If they move to the cloud, what happens to the equipment they used before, is it re-purposed, sold or given away, shutdown and stored in a closet, or continues to be used with the cloud as an adjunct to that equipment?

WR has already decided that they will either re-purpose the equipment or store it for possible use in the future as the investment is way to high just to get rid of with no return and they then have a plan if going to the cloud fails for whatever reason. How they go to the cloud, they are still deciding but their initial plans are to just get their feet wet and move cautiously so are planning on a hybrid cloud approach. Their concerns are about compliance, security, data governance and jurisdiction.

Many others are in the same boat, they have an investment in hardware, training, and people outside the cloud, and are deciding to either transition or not. Those who have started up during the cloud era already embraced the cloud and use it just like breathing, either as an adjunct to or instead of a local environment.

As an SMB or SME what are your choices for moving to the cloud, what do you wish the cloud had to make the movement easier, and do you plan on ever using the cloud?

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