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VMware: virtualized SMBs do it better

Disaster recovery on the cheap

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A new VMware survey says that small biz IT departments that embrace virtualization are more competent than those who don't. Not that you'd expect anything different from VMware.

The server virtualization juggernaut needs to know what small and medium businesses are thinking - and not just the ones that buy its ESX Server hypervisor and related management tools. And so it recently commissioned a survey of SMB customers to figure out what they think about virtualization.

The blind survey, performed on 309 SMB shops selected randomly in the United States and Canada, also sought to measure the gap between how well business managers thing the IT department is doing and IT's own assessment of itself. About 10 per cent of the respondents, who were surveyed between October 21 and November 5, came from Canada, with the rest coming from the United States. The distribution of respondents was intentionally fashioned to mimic the distribution across industry sectors in the North American economy.

The distribution of companies by company size was roughly a third for companies with between 20 and 99 employees, another third with 100 to 499 employees, and another third with 500 to 1,000 employees. VMware did not seek out customers using its tools, and it did not ask any questions about particular products in use by SMB shops to virtualize their servers. Some of the survey respondents did not yet have server virtualization installed. Nonetheless, their responses were quite enlightening. (You can see a report based on the survey here).

VMware has 150,000 customers using its server virtualization products, according to Joe Andrews, group manager of product marketing at VMware. And by the SMB definition above (fewer than 1,000 employees), the lion's share of VMware's server customers fall into the SMB category. There are, of course, many tens of millions of SMB companies worldwide, and a large portion of them are barely computerized and an even smaller percentage have gone virtual with their servers. That said, some SMBs are going whole hog for virtualization, according to Andrews.

"What we have seen is that the smaller the company, the faster they will go 100 per cent for virtualization," says Andrews. "It takes smaller companies more time to adopt virtualization, but once they start, they go in for it in a big way."

Microsoft has certainly counted on that, and so was Citrix Systems when it shelled out $500m to buy XenSource and its Xen hypervisor.

The most immediate benefit of server virtualization for SMBs may not be the ability to cram multiple workloads on a single box and drive up utilization - which is what large enterprises really cared about when server virtualization went mainstream a decade ago on Unix and proprietary midrange platforms and then thanks to VMware, on Linux and Windows x86 boxes - but rather that server virtualization allows for recovery from IT disasters.

"A lot of SMBs are affected by downtime, but they are not making the connection between virtualization and disaster recovery," says Andrews.

Among the companies surveyed, 33 per cent said they had a system outage in the past two years, and 21 per cent said they lost data as a result of the outage. Of those who lost data, 62 per cent said they lost customers, money, or both because of the data loss. A big business can shake that off, but an SMB shop - with a small or non-existent IT staff and a much smaller customer and product base - can't.

But because SMBs don't have spare IT resources, fewer than half of the companies polled have updated their disaster recover plans in the past two years. They are basically relying on tape backups and hope, and VMware, like other server virtualization tool providers, is ratcheting up the disaster recovery and fault tolerant products and marketing machine to get SMBs to understand that virtual infrastructure can allow them to have more resilient IT.

But when you ask SMBs why they virtualized their servers, the reasons they cite fall right in line with what you expect from large enterprises that are running out of room, power, and cooling in their data centers. Some 72 per cent of the SMB survey respondents cited the need to drive up server utilization as one of the reasons they went virtual. Another 57 per cent said it was about containing or reducing the number of servers, 48 per cent said they wanted to improve system uptime, 47 per cent said they wanted to make their servers and applications easier to manage, and another 47 per cent said virtualization allowed them to do a better job backing up and protecting their applications and data. (Obviously, they could respond with multiple answers to the question).

Here's some stats from the survey that VMware's sales reps will be citing in the coming months. Among the SMBs, 13 per cent of those polled said they spent 90 per cent of their time doing routine IT tasks to manage their systems and only 10 per cent of their time goes into strategic initiatives such as creating new applications. Another 44 percent said the split was more like 70-30, and 32 per cent said the split was about 50-50. A measly 11 per cent say they spend more than half of their IT person-hours on strategic stuff. Not surprisingly, 33 per cent of IT managers say they are responsive to business needs, while only 18 per cent of business managers feel they are responsive. (No one seems to be all that happy).

But here is where it gets interesting, at least as far as VMware is concerned. If you ask SMB shops how responsive the IT department is to changing business needs, 73 per cent of the companies that say they have server virtualization installed also say their IT department is responsive, while only 57 percent of the companies that do not have virtualization installed say the IT staff jumps and then asks how high on the way up.

For those SMBs who have not yet implemented virtualization, the lack of money to pay for it was the biggest reason, with 54 per cent saying they didn't have budget. Another 26 per cent said they were unsure of the benefits of virtualization and its return on investment, and 24 per cent said even if they did virtualization, they were not sure what product to pick. Some 17 per cent said they didn't have the skills to deploy server virtualization and 16 per cent said they weren't even sure who could sign off on server virtualization projects.

(This means, more than anything else, that company owners/presidents and IT managers were not the only ones answering the questions that VMware was posing).

<p Still, interest in server virtualization remains high. Of those who don't have fake servers yet, 34 per cent say they have allocated budget to make the move and 17 per cent said they have plans to move and are looking for the money to pay for it. Only one in six of the non-virtualized SMBs remain uninterested. ®

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