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We have 3 physical servers (1 mail server, 1 file server and 1 "other"). I want to combine these into a single server running a virtual environment and then make images and backups so that if a server fails, it can be restored within an hour if not less.

Windows 2003 Server OS, and this is a government school so no upgrade plan to 2008 or 2012 exists yet.

As a layman, how can I do this?

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closed as off-topic by Jenny D, MadHatter, dyasny, Ward, mdpc Jan 30 '14 at 5:59

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With those restrictions? You can't. You need to move to an OS that is also a hypervisor to do this properly; such as Server 2008, 2008 R2, 2012 or ESXi, or any one of the Linux distros that has mature virtualisation (OpenStack, KVM, Xen, etc). Also a server from 2003-era probably don't have the processor ability to do virtualisation properly. – Mark Henderson Jan 28 '14 at 9:54

Before starting make sure you have all licenses required for the servers to reinstall them. (especially Windows 2003)!

So you want to go virtual...
Start by calculating the current amount of resources on your machines.
Keep in mind that you are now able to share some resources between machines.
So if you now have 4 dualcore machines it doesn't always mean that you need one big octacore.

Now for virtualization solutions there are multiple options.

In general you want to go with something easy to use (for you) and with as little overhead as possible for the system.
If you want to go open-source then you end up with a linux distribution running KVM or XEN.
If you're lazy (like some sysadmins i've encountered) you could use virtualbox, but as others commented this is not recommended.

My recommendation would be VMware ESXi which is a free hypervisor from VMware.
Both solutions offer snapshots and easy exports of machines.

Keep in mind that ESXi might have hardware issues but will run on any HP or Dell server and in my experience even on most standard desktops and home-grown systems.

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Thanks, will do a audit on the server the determine the specs and compatibility. will look at VMware ESXi as per your recommendation. – Luke Jan 28 '14 at 10:30
Virtualbox is not for production use, just saying. If you're using Linux Xen/KVM is much much better. ESXi is nice but has its limitations. Hyper-V Server is also free. – Nathan C Jan 28 '14 at 13:32
I agree but it's what I've encountered – HTDutchy Jan 29 '14 at 13:21
@s4uadmin VirtualBox is Definitely NOT Suitable for production use (aside from the licensing costs, it's just not the right kind of software). For a Linux-based solution you would be well advised to look into Linux KVM (Kernel Virtual Machine). RedHat has thrown their weight behind this with Red Hat Enterprise Virtualization (RHEV), but there are no-cost pathways to using it as well. – voretaq7 Jan 29 '14 at 16:44

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