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Lab Email is now routinely referenced as a mission critical system. The importance of tools that help and encourage greater collaboration amongst staff, partners and even customers is also on the rise as organisations seek to raise productivity and performance. Is it possible for collaboration tools and e-mail systems to be utilised under the great bandwagon that is virtualisation and if it is what factors need to be considered?

Well, we know from readers of The Register that the virtualisation of email/collaboration servers is already a reality or a future focus for over half of those answering the survey back in September. So what drivers are causing such projects to be undertaken?

The answer is, naturally enough, all the benefits that we have come to associate with x86 server virtualisation.

Top of the list can be found the factors commonly experienced by server consolidation using virtualisation tools. These include “saving money”, “making better use of resources” and generally being able to provide higher levels of availability through either the dynamic movement of VMs around physical servers or by being able to recover from server failures more rapidly than previously achievable without spending a fortune. With the use of collaboration systems growing, the ability to rapidly deploy such tools as a business project demands is also finding some favour.

It all sounds great, but are there any challenges with using virtualisation in the support of e-mail and collaboration tools? Certainly, but they are examples ‘in context’ of the general issues that face nearly all virtualised operations.

The first area concerns making sure individual virtual machines are created with the appropriate access to the physical resources of the server and not over-provisioned with unused capacity. This can become a major challenge if the issue of virtual machine sprawl rears its head as VMs are spun up “on demand”.

This point is intimately connected with the requirement that good change control processes are implemented alongside the operational systems themselves, to ensure that resource consumption is well matched to business need, resource availability and security policies.

Indeed, the ease with which new instances of a collaboration platform can be created makes it possible to create very large numbers of VMs supporting different collaboration projects. Creating, specifying, and removing them at their end of useful life is essential if VM sprawl is to be avoided and resource usage optimised.

Alongside the effective use of physical resources comes the nightmare that is software licensing. The ability to create virtual machines at the drop of hat, or the demand of a user can make it easy to break software licensing agreements. This is an area that needs some supervision, especially as the industry as yet to settle upon a single model for licensing in virtualised server environments.

Finally, there is the old chestnut of data protection. All virtual machines need to be protected, especially those that may hold freshly generated data within them. This makes it essential that virtual collaboration servers are protected by proper backup procedures, a task that may be overlooked unless virtual machine creation is well integrated with protection policies and systems.

So, I leave you with the question of whether virtualisation is a good ‘partner’ to the proliferation of SharePoint/collaboration tools, or does it just add to the complexity of managing such systems? The same question can be asked of running e-mail and messaging systems in virtual machines now that Microsoft supports such operations, albeit under very specific operating scenarios.

If you are running a mail system and/or a collaboration platform in a virtualised environment and care to share your experiences, please leave your comments here. ®

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