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Virtualization: What It Means for Your Law Office

There is a lot of buzz about virtualization these days. But what exactly is this “virtualization” stuff, and is it something you should consider implementing in your law office? Here is some information that will bring you and the people in your firm into the loop.

Let’s start with trying to understand what virtualization is. Odds are good that some of this may sound too technical to many, but stick with us for a few moments.

Virtualization can occur in many forms, but in its simplest and most common form it involves consolidating applications running on separate servers onto a single piece of hardware. Each application or server then has its own memory “footprint” within the one “host” machine. There are many other forms of virtualization, such as desktop, network and storage virtualization. Virtualizations are being implemented in all sizes of firms, from the largest ones to solo practices.

Virtualization has been around for a long time and was commonly used even in the days of mainframe computers. The big mainframes had sections “carved out” that were running different operating systems and applications. The intent is taking advantage of the investment in hardware. It is similar to having multiple people riding on a single train. The more people who are riding, the more cost-effective the operation is. It gets very expensive to operate those multiple trains with only one passenger on each, after all. Similarly, by virtualizing servers, you can reduce overall power consumption, cooling requirements and maintenance costs. This very “green” impact has been one of the big drivers behind virtualization.

Some Terminology to Know

Now let’s talk a bit about some of the other terminology you’ll hear when dealing with virtualized environments. There will be multiple independently installed virtual machines (VMs) or guests that may even be running different operating systems. These virtual machines run on a single physical server, otherwise known as the host. Virtualization software lets the VMs run on top of the host’s operating system. Each virtual machine is unaware of the other VMs running on the host system. Microsoft’s implementation of this is called Hyper-V and is a very popular (and free) method to facilitate virtualization. Besides Microsoft, VMware products are widely used in the virtualization market.

Another term you may hear is P2V, which means physical to virtual. Essentially, this takes your physical server and converts it into a virtual environment.

About now, we expect we’ve achieved that classic “deer in the headlights” look from many readers. But please, read on, because virtualization can be an incredible asset to law firms.

Considerations When Deciding to Implement Virtual Servers in Your Office

Why should you consider virtualizing servers at your firm? Apart from the reduction in energy costs and the savings in physical space, virtualized machines make it very fast to recover from failures. Each running machine is really nothing more than a bunch of files that are independent of the hardware. This means that if there is a system failure, you can take your backup files and “stand up” another instance of the VM somewhere else. This use of virtualization is very attractive for disaster recovery purposes.

As an example, we use a backup device that takes snapshots of the data every 15 minutes. Should one of the servers fail (e.g., the file and print server), we can virtualize that server on the backup appliance using the latest 15-minute snapshot. This means that we are back in operation very quickly running a VM in place of the failed server. And we’ve lost no more than 15 minutes worth of data. So a relatively small investment in virtualization can help avoid the time and cost of recovering from hardware failures.

As a design goal, you want to run your host hardware at around 60 percent utilization. This maximizes the number of VMs on the host and provides room so that each VM can burst up and use the remaining processing power of the host. So don’t get greedy and try to run your virtual servers at 100 percent—you’ll potentially do yourself a great deal of harm going down that road.

Certainly, large firms were the first to implement virtualized environments, but there are advantages for small law firms as well. You could have one virtualized server to test updates to applications, new applications or even operating system patches. We’ve seen small firms virtualize several servers (e-mail, file and print, domain controller, database, etc.) onto a single platform.

If you are running Terminal Server, it is a good idea to virtualize that, too, since other applications may have issues running alongside Terminal Server at the same time. In our own environment, we currently run Terminal Server as a guest VM along with a guest instance of the BlackBerry Enterprise Server Express (free) on the same host.

Another advantage of virtualization is rapid deployment and flexibility. This is not quite the same thing as providing for a disaster backup, which we’ve already mentioned. Rapid deployment means that you can take the VM and move it to another host very quickly with little or no impact. Remember that a virtual machine is nothing but a bunch of files, so moving it to another host is really nothing more than copying files.

The ability to change the characteristics of the virtual machine is another benefit. You can adjust memory and hardware availability on the fly. As an example, we just increased RAM for one of our VMs from 2GB to 3GB with just a couple of mouse clicks. Be aware, however, that there may be limitations in sharing the host peripherals among the VMs depending on the product you are using. As an example, we can’t define any of the USB ports to a virtual machine with the version of Microsoft Hyper-V that we have running on one of our hosts. VMware, though, is more flexible and we haven’t had problems sharing any of the host peripherals with the guest VMs.

Other Things to Know About This Type of Setup

Servers aren’t the only reason for virtualization. Many lawyers using Macintosh computers are already very familiar with virtualization. A lot of Mac users are running VMware or Parallels with a copy of Windows (i.e., in the virtual machine) to run some software that doesn’t have a Macintosh version. This allows the Mac user to continue to use a Windows-based application until the vendor produces a Mac-native version. Virtualization for Macs doesn’t just mean that Windows is a guest system all the time, either. You can even run Mac OS X as a guest VM on a Windows system.

What are some of the other considerations in virtualization? Here are two important points:

• Just because you can run multiple virtual machines on a single host doesn’t mean that everything is free. There are licensing costs associated with each VM you have running. This means that you’ll still need to pay for the operating system license, the mail server licenses and any other application license costs. Be sure to check the terms of licensing because it is a rapidly changing landscape. Since virtualization has become popular, some software manufacturers now provide special terms for licensing in a VM environment where each instance is at a far reduced rate. As an example, your antivirus provider may offer a per-server cost that is much lower than individual pricing if the software was running on separate hardware for each server.

• Another consideration is the skill set required to configure and maintain a virtualized environment. Running a VM on a single workstation is pretty straightforward. As an example, installing Parallels on a Mac and then installing Windows in the Parallels VM is a task that most lawyers can handle without much trouble.

However, sizing and designing a server environment is a lot more complicated. If you are in a larger firm, get your IT staff some training in the virtualization hardware and software that you intend to deploy. If you’re in a smaller firm, make sure that your IT support folks are certified or trained in particular products and not just going through the “read me” file that came with the software.

It Looks Like It’s Here to Stay

Virtualizating has been spreading like wildfire recently. While it may still have some drawbacks, because of its many advantages we predict that more and more firms will be implementing it over the next several years. And, along with its potential for overall cost savings, it’s a great environment to minimize downtime at a firm.

So, if you haven’t thought about virtualizating your firm, consider the information provided here when it comes time to determine whether it makes sense for your firm to go virtual.

About the Authors

Sharon D. Nelson and John W. Simek are President and Vice President, respectively, of Sensei Enterprises, Inc., a computer forensics and legal technology firm based in Fairfax, VA. They are coauthors of The 2010 Solo and Small Firm Legal Technology Guide (ABA, 2010).

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