Disaster-proof virtualisation on a dime: how I did it

Most companies virtualize servers to save money, save space and save time for the business. HR outsourcing firm The Sullivan Group had another motivator: hurricanes. Here's their thrifty, successful formula for virtualization, using Citrix and Marathon Technologies products.

Most companies virtualize servers to save money, save space and act faster on IT requests from the business. Human-resources outsourcing service The Sullivan Group virtualized its servers partially because company executives were worried about hurricanes.

"We're in Savannah [Georgia], so we're right on the coast, and we've had a few [hurricanes] miss us by a little and go North to Hilton Head or Charleston, or hit south of us, but our luck's not going to hold forever," says Robert Jones, the company's IT director.

As he spoke recently by phone to a reporter far outside the hurricane zone, thunder crashed in the background as if to demonstrate that late-summer storms on the Georgia coast are no trivial thing.

An Unusual Choice

Neither is setting up and maintaining a bank of Linux servers, especially a bank of Linux servers running a bunch of virtual desktops for employees, a brand-new CRM suite and a series of online job boards for job-seekers in Georgia. These server also had to be braced for the additional traffic that would come from adding Web interfaces so that several thousand customers could get directly to the financial, benefits and management applications that Sullivan runs for them.

This type of Linux choice is not typical of two-person IT staffs, especially those who are in the middle of major upgrades, analysts say.

"I like Linux, I trust Linux," Jones says. "I was familiar with VMware and we had run it on a couple of servers, but it didn't have the HA capabilities we needed when we were doing this [in spring, 2008], so we were more drawn to Citrix," he says. "Right now, all our Microsoft products run on top of Linux, and that's the way it should be."

Much of the drive to upgrade came from the impending rollout of a customized version of Microsoft's Dynamics CRM suite that would handle the payroll, financial management, compliance reporting and other applications that Sullivan uses internally and supports for customers.

Jones didn't want and couldn't afford the packaged VMware virtual infrastructure, however, Instead, the company installed Citrix Systems XenServer with Marathon Technology's everRun VM high-availability functions-which can mirror real and virtual servers to redundant machines to ensure that data isn't lost if the primaries go out.

Microsoft's hypervisor was just coming out and the host of HA/DR applications available for Windows Server didn't fit the bill for a company that didn't want to run a lot of Windows servers, Jones says.

"There were a lot of factors that went into the decision, primarily the software upgrade [to CRM] and that we couldn't pick up 10 physical servers and move them if we had to," according to Erika Simpson, Sullivan's network administrator. "We could load the VMs on an external hard drive and go, though."

Being able to walk out the door with VMs in hand and set up in a rented space, at Sullivan's Atlanta office, or at the office of a company with which Sullivan has an informal space-sharing agreement if either should have to move temporarily following a disaster, gives it the kind of options it could never have afforded a couple of years ago, Jones says.

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