Multiply & Conquer

Software that helps one server do the work of many

When ISB community bank recently moved its main branch into a new building, the time seemed right for a technology upgrade, too. The 87-employee Ixonia (Wis.) bank wanted to replace the three servers it used to host e-mail, database, and mobile messaging software. But with servers running about $6,000 apiece, it was reluctant to do so.

Instead, the bank spent about $1,000 for a program from Virtual Iron Software that essentially turned a single machine into several mini-servers, allowing it to consolidate the three tasks. And, says Gregg Hughes, information technology specialist for the $3.5 million bank, it can add more software in the future without buying additional hardware. "It will give us a lot more flexibility to expand," says Hughes. "Lots more options."

Servers have been packing more and more power, and the software programs most small companies run on them typically use only a small fraction of a machine's capacity. But companies have been wary of combining the e-mail, mobile messaging, database, and other software they need on a single piece of hardware because programs don't always work well together. So-called server virtualization software addresses that problem. It partitions a server, giving each program its own operating system in one machine. "Server virtualization lets programs share hardware, even though they don't share operating systems," says Frank Gillett, vice-president at consulting firm Forrester Research.

VMware launched the first server virtualization package in 2001, and since then more companies have released packages with prices designed to attract smaller companies. Companies that have multiple servers or want to expand can use the software to save plenty of money. The programs also can get your operations up and running faster after a crash or disaster. They make a copy of all the information on a particular server, which you then can easily transfer to a second server. "We could cut the time for recovery from days to minutes," says Hughes, adding that ISB is using one of its old servers as a backup.

Although the technology has clear benefits, it does require an IT person or server provider to set up and maintain it. "If you don't have those skills, then forget it," says Andreas Antonopoulos, senior vice-president at Nemertes Research in Mokena, Ill.

When choosing a program, you'll want to compare costs and features. A good feature to have is automatic failover, which instantly moves operations to a second server if the first one goes down, says Chris Wolf, senior analyst at technology consulting firm Burton Group in Midvale, Utah. Comparing the programs' support services is also critical. Some vendors will not agree to provide support for software that is used in conjunction with virtualization software, so be sure to check the vendor's policy.

In 2005, Foam Design, a Lexington (Ky.) custom packager, was planning to buy eight servers to replace outdated machines. Instead, the 50-person, $20 million company opted for two servers and installed VMware applications in each. Aaron Kincer, who was until recently Foam Design's IT manager, says the company chose VMware because it was the most established player in the market. Kincer didn't buy the automatic failover package, but he says the software can still quickly back up information. Foam Design now runs 14 virtual servers on the two machines, and Kincer estimates the company saved about $20,000. Says Kincer: "This was a great opportunity to meet the company's needs and give some room for growth for a much lower price tag."

By Rachael King

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