Analyzing VMware vSphere cost and benefits for a small business

The free VMware vSphere Hypervisor might seem like the perfect virtualization tool for SMB IT. But spending the money for vSphere Essentials pays off.

Using the free VMware vSphere Hypervisor will save SMBs hundreds of dollars and enable virtualization, but that's not worth the features you're giving up by not paying for VMware.

VMware cost is based on virtualization features, not the bare-metal hypervisor that supports these features. From the free, basic vSphere Hypervisor through VMware's fully featured vSphere Enterprise Plus with Operations Management, vSphere options all run on the same ESXi Type-1 hypervisor. Many small and medium businesses (SMBs) run production workloads on the free VMware hypervisor -- I've done so myself -- because ESXi is production-quality. But this is rarely a good plan. Spending the money for a higher-tier vSphere version will reap benefits.

VMware vSphere Hypervisor can seem good enough to many small business owners, and making the case for the added vSphere cost can be tough. But spending money will benefit the SMB’s operations when it comes to backups, multiple-host management and virtual machine (VM) availability and mobility.

Backups in vSphere

In the paid editions of vSphere, application programming interfaces (APIs) are writeable, allowing other applications to communicate with and manipulate vSphere. This includes backup software.

With the free vSphere Hypervisor, you're stuck backing up VMs as if they were physical computers. You install an agent into each operating system and have a completely separate backup server running your backups.

There are several vSphere backup options available for SMBs, but each -- including VMware's -- requires a paid version of the hypervisor platform with which it can communicate. A paid vSphere version -- vSphere Essentials Kit is an entry-level option -- will ultimately pay for itself through the lower complexity and cost of your backup alone. Without manual interventions to run backups, you're freeing up IT time.

Don't even think about simply not using backup. If your data doesn't exist in at least two places, it doesn't exist. And a company running IT without backups is a disaster waiting to happen.

Managing multiple hosts

The vSphere Essentials Kit buys you enough software and licenses to manage up to three servers. At a minimum, SMBs should operate two virtual servers. If one server suffers a hardware malfunction, the other will carry on and keep the workloads running.

VMware vSphere Essentials doesn't allow for automated failover, but many SMBs don't feel the need to make the jump up to the vSphere Essentials Plus Kit because their workloads can withstand a little bit of downtime in an emergency. The vSphere Essentials Kit is the right choice for these businesses; it allows easy management of all virtual hosts, gives access to the unlocked APIs and comes in at a very affordable price.

The vSphere Essentials Kit is $560 for three dual-processor servers, whereas you'll spend $5,439 running vSphere Essentials Plus on those three servers. If you need to justify the expenditure on vSphere Essentials, consider that it is roughly the cost of two small enterprise-class hard drives, or a little over half the cost of a copy of Windows Server Standard.

High availability, high priority

The purpose of x86 virtualization is to consolidate multiple servers into a single system. SMBs can take full advantage of the servers they have already purchased. Before virtualization, most physical servers are severely underutilized.

Most small businesses could cheerfully cram their entire IT operations into a cheap, modern two-processor server with plenty of room to spare. That’s doubly true when you consider that many of these small businesses are moving some workloads into the public cloud. But cramming everything onto one server -- one hardware system that could fail -- is a bad idea.

Enabled starting at the vSphere Essentials Plus Kit, VMware High Availability is an automated means of dealing with a server failure by shifting VMs off a failed host and restarting them on a functional host automatically. On the vSphere Hypervisor and the vSphere Essentials Kit, the IT admin must manually identify hardware problems and manually restart VMs.

If a few hours, or even minutes, of downtime while an issue is resolved manually will cost your business far more than vSphere licenses enabling high availability, go with the Essentials Plus Kit or higher.

VM mobility with vMotion

VMware vMotion comes with the vSphere Essentials Plus Kit and costlier offerings. With vMotion, admins can move VMs from one host to another without powering them down. This is not possible with the free VMware hypervisor.

VMs can get pretty big; 50, 100 or even 200GB is not uncommon even in a small business. Moving that much information over a 1Gbit network connection can take quite a long time, especially when that network is busy doing other things. Small businesses don't usually invest in expensive centralized storage; VMs are stored on the virtual host.

Turning the VM off, pulling it down to a central server and then pushing it back up to the next server creates a significant amount of downtime. VMotion automates that process.

More importantly, even in the worst-case VM mobility scenario -- where the VM must go down to move -- vMotion still transfers it from one host directly to another, cutting out the middle-man server and that transfer's time and network usage from the equation.

Most small businesses seeking vMotion choose the vSphere Essentials Plus Kit, obtaining the vSphere Storage Appliance to convert local storage on virtual hosts into centralized storage. With the proper setup, vSphere Essentials has the right storage to move VMs between hosts without ever powering them down.

The VM uptime benefits can pay for vMotion's added cost in short order. The admin still needs to patch virtual hosts and repair hardware failures. Also consider that small businesses tend to upgrade their systems far more often than enterprises, adding to the potential for downtime without vMotion.

VMware vMotion and High Availability, centralized management and the ability to run host-level backups would each independently justify VMware's cost for vSphere Essentials or a more advanced edition. Together, the payoff outweighs the cost savings of the free vSphere Hypervisor.

This was first published in June 2013

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