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I've been asked to evaluate moving three production servers to a virtualization platform. The servers currently run Windows Server 2003 with a mix of applications that, given a catastrophic failure, could tolerate up to 1-2 days of downtime - but certainly not on a regular basis.

My concern is that there is a lack of in-house expertise in this area. The day-to-day support is handled by a (primarily) developer-focused team, with secondary support from the institution's help desk and then vendor support as needed with about a 24 hour response SLA.

Given this type of scenario, would you have any concerns running either Hyper-V or ESX as opposed to separate physical machines?

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This was good feedback. I identified the lack of in-house expertise as a risk, and created a to-do list which includes ensuring training and vendor support. They'll reevaluate next year, and for now will virtualize the dev environment, which will be better a training ground. – ScottBai Aug 16 '11 at 18:48
up vote 7 down vote accepted

Of course I would have concerns. The answer is "Yes, there's a whole lot of risk." Would you let a teenager, who's worked on desktops but never worked on server hardware, come in and manage your datacenter? And having no one with server experience to train him?

You can :

  1. Accept the risks and hope your guys learn on the job quickly, without requiring too many disasters

  2. Send one or more to a class on your particular VM technology

Also - who the hell is going to architect this, if you don't have anyone experienced in-house? This is exactly what consultants/contractors are good at. Have someone who knows their stuff come in, evaluate what you want, fill in the gaps, do it, and train your guys with the basics. And send someone to school, too, unless you want to lean on the contractor every time the power hiccups.

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Let me clarify that by "lack of support in this area" I was specifically referring to virtualization as opposed to server OS experience. There is some experience with Hyper-V and ESXi in development/staging environments, but not production-level experience such as command line-level production support. But I don't think this changes the bulk of your point. – ScottBai Aug 15 '11 at 22:52
+1 for bringing a consultant in. A few consulting hours (or a day or two) can save you a fortune in the long run. – mrdenny Aug 16 '11 at 0:42
Yup. I'm not saying "Don't do it." Given time, any good admin can learn a new technology. VM isn't a whole new paradigm, but it can get complex, with new types of storage, IO concerns that you probably never had before, etc, so it can be a challenge for a newbie to get it off the ground the right way if there's a lot riding on it. – mfinni Aug 16 '11 at 1:18

It is much easier to maintain virtual servers. 99% of the time you don't have to worry about drivers etc. Further more you are not dependent on old physical servers. I would virtualize the 3 servers and spent a few days playing around with ESXi or HyperV. VMware is very easy to use, and you don't need to learn command line. There is a small learning curve, however the time spent is totally worth it.

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Hopefully the "few days playing aroudn with ESXi or HyperV" happens BEFORE virtualizing 3 production servers! – ScottBai Aug 15 '11 at 22:53
Well you can get into just as much trouble with physical servers :) – atmorell Aug 15 '11 at 23:02

I find that for Windows-focused admins, who don't need to scale to the "paid" solutions on VMWare or Microsoft side, that Hyper-V (either free Hyper-V server or paid Windows Server with Hyper-V role) requires the least instruction and effort for someone totally new. They are both just as production ready for your environment so if you already have one VM vender that you're comfortable with, that's more important then features or performance benchmarks.

I agree that once you understand the concepts like you have in dev/test, that a single physical server with 3 VM's is in general, easier to manage then three physical servers. Just take the increased importance/risk of the single hardware and have a plan for failed parts so that a single part failure doesn't take your whole server line down for days.

Virtualization was new to us all at one point in time, so at least you have the dev/test experience to guide you. At your size of environment there is no mystical tricks or fancy designs required.

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Don't forget that you also have the option of using XenServer (free). Regardless of the Virtualization technology you choose, you have a few parameters you need to choose from:

1) How many physical servers? - Two identical servers in a "pool" will allow you to still run your 3 VM's in the case of one physical server failing

2) Network or local storage? - Network storage will allow for more simple RAID management, email reporting. It is also pretty much required if you have more than one physical server - Local storage will be faster, but can be tricky to get RAID setup depending on software

3) VM Software price ? - Both ESXi and XenServer offer a free baseline package. As you move up to the most basic paid package, you are looking at around $1000 bucks. I'm not sure about HyperV - You should consider the features of the package you choose, and factor this into your budget. Remember, all of these VM software options require 64 bit CPU's. And I know that XenServer and HyperV require a cpu with Intel-VT or AMD-V features. (Not sure about ESXi).

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