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SMBs are adding virtualization to aid in disaster recovery planning

Considering the disastrous state of the U.S. economy, it seems fitting that disaster recovery (DR) is on the mind of IT managers. Nearly half of storage managers polled ranked disaster recovery initiatives as a top spending priority heading into 2009, according to Storage magazine's 2009 Storage Priorities survey.

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The uncertain business conditions, combined with the ongoing burden of regulatory compliance, are causing companies to examine virtualization as a DR planning tool. According to industry observers, virtualization is a game-changer that is especially helpful for small and midsized businesses (SMBs).

Disaster recovery and business continuity planning have typically been expensive and problematic for SMBs. But new and improved virtualization tools "provide a very simple way to create backup for your servers," without having to identically configure servers and absorb other hardware costs, said Zeus Kerravala, a vice president of research with Boston-based Yankee Group.

Features such as workload mobility, along with enabling small IT operations to move applications in real time, also promise enormous DR value for budget-constrained firms, Kerravala said.

Virtualization tools include special software and hardware components for creating logical partitions on existing physical servers. Typically, this lets companies run various iterations of a server on the same machine. It also aids disaster recovery by creating machined images that mirror applications and server hardware, thus adding a layer of redundancy.

Prominent virtualization products include VMotion, a suite of applications provided by VMWare Inc., and an open-source version created by XenSource Inc. (now part of Citrix Systems Inc.). Microsoft Corp. also offers virtualization capabilities that span the desktop and data center environments. That includes Microsoft Server 2008 Datacenter, the company's virtualization platform.

"What we're starting to see is the focus of IT administrators shifting away from the physical and toward the logical [computing environment]. Technology people at small businesses aren't referring to themselves as 'server guys' or 'IT guys' anymore, (but) as 'VMware engineers," Kerravala said.

Virtualization tools for SMBs

According to the latest Yankee Group figures, about two-thirds of SMBs have virtualization deployed somewhere in their environment. Most of the deployments are for non-critical applications in testing and development, "but we're starting to see it in more production servers, even in small companies," Kerravala said.

Nearly two-thirds of IT managers in the U.S., and 55 percent globally, are reevaluating their DR plans, with a view to adding virtualization as a key component. That's according to an annual survey last August by Symantec Corp.

Part of the reason: the number of applications considered critical to normal business operations is steadily climbing. On average, IT managers indicate nearly 60% of their applications must be highly available, up 20 percentage points since Symantec's 2007 survey.

"Even though the percentage of applications that were deemed mission-critical went up by a lot, only half those applications were covered by a DR plan," said Mark Lohmeyer, vice president of Symantec Corp.'s Veritas Cluster Server Group.

Other survey findings provide help to explain virtualization's increasing popularity. Roughly one-third of organizations were forced to put their plans in motion during the past year. Although a heartening 98% of companies test their DR plans for at least one threat, three of every 10 tests fail to meet the company's recovery time objective (RTO).

"If you think about the key reasons why many companies haven't implemented DR today, the two biggest are cost and complexity. Over time, we think that's going to result in more and more instances of DR and virtualization coming together," Lohmeyer said.

The heightened vendor activity -- specifically, Microsoft's foray into the virtualization space -- reflects that virtualizations tools are becoming commodity products, with affordable price tags for the SMB market.

"Microsoft being in the virtualization market certainly has helped push virtualization to small businesses. [For those companies], it's going to come bundled in Microsoft Server 2008 Datacenter," the company's virtualization platform, Kerravala said.

Virtualization is an enabling technology, not a panacea

Companies shouldn't neglect risk assessments and business impact analyses when doing their DR planning, said Georgios Mortakis, an IT security consultant with Enterprise Risk Management in Coral Gables, Fla.

In the past, IT managers were prone to lump all their systems together to ensure every bit of data got coverage, Mortakis said, but a blanket approach isn't the wisest use of limited security dollars, especially with budgets tightening.

"We do not recommend cutting back on disaster recovery as a way to cut down on associated costs. We recommend that people prioritize exactly which critical systems and data they need," Mortakis said.

About this author: Garry Kranz is a freelance technology writer in Richmond, VA. His work has appeared in SearchCIO.com, SearchSecurity.com and other TechTarget news portals.


This was first published in February 2009

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