Ten Tips on Going Virtual

A CUNA Technology Council white paper explores the benefits and challenges of server virtualization.

September 9, 2010

Virtualization will have a dramatic impact on credit union data centers during the next three to five years, according to “Server Virtualization,” a white paper from the CUNA Technology Council.

Credit unions at all asset levels are pursuing server, storage, and desktop virtualization—focusing first on server virtualization. The chief impetus for the shift, notes the whitepaper, is to put the brakes on server sprawl, which contributes to a mushrooming physical footprint and expanding energy costs for power supply and cooling.

Virtualization allows credit unions to place several servers that use different operating systems on one virtual machine host. With an average of 12 servers or more per virtual machine host (depending the machine’s processor), this reduces to a handful the number of machines used by even the largest credit unions. And it allows system administration to move from working on widely scattered physical servers to a centralized virtual monitoring system.

Virtualization also permits more flexibility—allowing quick addition and deletion of virtual machine servers. A virtual system minimizes downtime for maintenance and testing, explains the whitepaper. While it used to take an average of two days to bring online a new physical box server, in a virtual environment, a credit union can add a server in a matter of hours or even minutes. This is important for two reasons—software testing and migration of data for backup and disaster recovery.

The whitepaper offers 10 tips for credit unions planning to move toward virtual servers:

1. Take a class during the planning stage and before implementation to help you define which physical box servers to virtualize, which to wait on, and which to leave as is.

2. Glean valuable information and support for your virtualization project through regional user groups and their message boards.

3. Perform a complete inventory of your servers, operating systems, and applications. Figure out which ones you plan to virtualize. Consider hiring a consultant to help map out the process.

4. Recognize that while many servers can be virtualized, others might have to wait or not be virtualized at all given their age and hardware constraints.

5. Test, test, test. One of the advantages of virtualization is its testing mode. Go slowly.

6. Be prepared to be patient with your timeline. Physical-to-virtual conversion isn’t as simple as vendors make it out to be.

7. Make sure the system port connections are the fastest possible to support throughput.

8. Start the system training effort with the system administrator, via a trainer who is a hands-on expert. Then train the rest of the networking staff.

9. Consider investing in a storage area network (SAN) at the same time you invest in virtual servers. SANs help you reap the full benefits of virtual servers through high availability and disaster recovery options.

10. Thoroughly research third-party vendors before hiring. While third-party arrangements can help reduce costs and time committed to administration, outsourcing has its own risks. Make sure your credit union can trust the vendor—based on client history, reliability and trust, excellent online security, and good communication.

Virtualization isn’t without challenges, but its long-term benefits can curb rapid physical server expansion and make system upgrades and maintenance more manageable and cost-effective.

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