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Virtual Sanity

An Easy, Little-Known Way To Save Money.

There's a new technology in town, and it's a pro at helping your church office's network run with greater efficiency and at a lower cost. But there's one catch.

It's free.

Yup. Free. The first time I heard about it, I asked, "Can it possibly be any good?" I think you'll be just as surprised as I was.

The technology is called virtual servers and it's made possible by free software. Here's how it works: Churches with multiple computers all linked together on a network usually have one or more central computers, or servers, that do two things: one, run services, such as email and security, that each of the other computers depend upon; and two, store data files. The most expensive component in a network server is its processor chip, yet most of the time, less than 10 percent of the chip's capacity actually gets used. This software takes advantage of the chip's extra capacity by allowing a computer to run multiple virtual servers on just one physical computer. This means fewer computers running as servers, which saves money and provides greater control over the various services performed by each server.

The Click of a Button

In the 1990's, a company called VMware created software that allows one PC to run multiple computers at the same time. Because these computers are not separate hardware computers, but actually run within another computer, they're virtual.

Once the right software is installed, all you do is click a button to create a new virtual computer. You're then prompted to provide the following information:

  • The type of operating system;
  • How large of a hard drive is needed;
  • How much random access memory (RAM) is needed.

The virtual computer now is ready to be configured as a server. It runs in a window on your desktop, completely set up as though it were a separate physical computer. From there, you'll install the operating system of the virtual computer, and proceed with all of the usual steps needed to set up a physical server.

Multiple Benefits

The software that meets the needs of nearly all churches really is free. The companies offering it make their money on larger operations, and the percentage of churches that need those more expensive versions is small.

The only cost involves installing the software. That either means time spent by your staff, or funds spent to hire an engineer who knows how to configure virtual server hosts.

Before you wonder whether or not it is really worth doing, here's a list of the benefits to consider:

1. Fewer physical servers. Remember that most servers' processors are severely underutilized. Though they may spike in utilization at any given time, those spikes are short-lived and not tied to activities on other servers.

We have talked with church and ministry information technology managers who have said they reduced their physical server counts from more than 20 down to 3 or 4! From 70 down to 10! In our firm's office, we went from 10 down to 5.

Brunswick Street Baptist Church in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada, operates in a century-old building with limited physical space. "With a small budget and almost no real estate to put gear in, we pursued virtualization as a way of providing services in a manageable way while staying inside our physical footprint," says Rick Wightman, the church's IT Director.

2. Increased reliability. One of the best ways to improve network reliability and stability is to take many of the various services performed on a server—such as email, databases, communications, security, and backup—and split them out to different servers. This decreases the number of potential software service and memory conflicts because there's only one service running on each virtual server. It also makes it easy to restart a service or an entire virtual server, like an email server, for example, without affecting other network services.

Virtual servers, though running on the same physical computer, truly are separate servers. This technology makes it easy and affordable to separate services. It also makes it possible to set up test servers for new software and patches. "Virtualization has also allowed us to be more adventurous since we can experiment without incurring additional overhead for the gear to support it, or potentially poisoning a production machine," Wightman adds. "We provision a new machine [meaning the creation of a new virtual server] and if it doesn't suit us, delete it. If it does, we can decide how to place it in the [network]."

3. Easier network administration. One of the features of this technology is the ability to take 'snapshots' of virtual servers on a scheduled basis. Depending on the amount of hard drive space available, this may allow you to keep many snapshots available so that if you had to, you could restore a server to a previous moment in time with a couple of mouse clicks. This can be very helpful in overcoming a malware infection or a crash that has corrupted data. It's also easier to manage because you might have a half-dozen or more virtual servers running on one computer, and switching between them is all done simply with a mouse click.

4. Better disaster recovery and business continuity. Though the host computer should be one that is appropriately engineered for its role, the software that allows hosting virtual servers can run on almost any recent computer. So if a physical server completely crashed, got stolen, or got destroyed, you could get your network back up and running pretty quickly by simply taking some desktop computers and putting the virtual server software on them.

David Szpunar, the network and systems manager with Lakeview Church in Indianapolis, says the church's use of virtual servers only reduced its number of physical servers from 11 to 9. But he has setup 40 virtual servers. "Almost every virtual server has a dedicated task, and that has increased our reliability and improved our backup significantly," he says.

5. Lower power usage. Fewer physical servers leads to less power consumption, which requires less air conditioning—two ways to save on utility bills. Some utility companies, including PG&E, SoCal Edison, and SDG&E in California, for instance, even offer incentives to virtualize. The incentives may include rebates on purchases of more efficient servers or even on the cost of the virtualization project based on projected savings. Check with your utility company to see if they offer any incentives for virtualizing.

Where to Go

There are three primary software providers for this technology: Microsoft, VMware, and Citrix. Though Microsoft may eventually win, the market is currently dominated by VMware, the company that invented the technology. (Both Microsoft and VMware offer free versions of their server virtualization software.)

In our firm's lab, we began our testing with Microsoft's solution, found it problematic, and switched to VMware. VMware is easy to use, stable, and powerful; we haven't looked back. You can download a free copy to use on as many host computers as you'd like at www.vmware.com.

Virtual computers—especially as servers—make a lot of sense. They are easy to configure and use. They are a cost effective way to get more out of a hardware investment. And as people committed to good stewardship, they are an easy way to earn the words of praise, "Well done, good and faithful servant."

Nick Nicholaou is president of Ministry Business Services Inc., a consulting firm specializing in church and ministry computer networks, operational policies, and CPA services. Read his blog at http://ministry-it.blogspot.com.

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