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Replace your small business' vSphere deployment

Although many small businesses are content to run their IT on a small vSphere deployment for as long as possible, there will inevitably come a time when change will be necessary.

For every global enterprise with data centers full of vSphere, there are hundreds of smaller businesses. Many small...

businesses are happy to have their IT run on the smallest vSphere deployment they can build. But sooner or later, these little vSphere deployments will need to be replaced.

Most small businesses like to get as much return as possible out of their IT expenses, and some don't replace servers until they are five or more years old. So what are the options for a business that needs to replace a really old vSphere deployment? Keep in mind that server hardware has progressed a lot in the last five years and that a lot has changed as far as restrictions are concerned on the various editions of VMware ESXi.

Consider the cloud

Many of the functions that required on-premises servers five years ago are now available as a service. It is worthwhile investigating using cloud services rather than on-premises servers. Microsoft Office 365, DropBox or Google products may satisfy all your server needs. While many online services are available, there are still a few reasons to choose to retain an on-premises vSphere deployment.

Find simplicity with standalone software

Free is a great price for a VMware hypervisor, although it comes without any support arrangement.

The simplest and cheapest VMware deployment is a single ESXi server with local disks. All the VMs run on this one host and there is no requirement for shared storage. It should be a simple matter to run a dozen VMs with a basic, current generation server, which should be plenty for a small business. This one host could use the free edition of the vSphere hypervisor to minimize cost.

It's been some time since the free hypervisor was limited to 32 GB of RAM; this limit is now long gone. The one physical server should have redundant power supplies, fans and storage. Since it is home to every VM, we want it to stay in operation if common failures occur. For maintenance on the physical server or hypervisor, it will be necessary to shut down every VM, so that will be an after-hours activity. The expectation of out-of-hours maintenance also means that there may be less need for hot swap parts. Bear in mind that if a nonredundant part of the server fails, then all VMs are offline until the server is fixed. For this size business, this is probably an acceptable level of availability. At small scale, the lack of vCenter management isn't a major issue.

There is no High Availability (HA) or vMotion to think about, and VMs aren't created often enough that templates and cloning are a problem. Free is a great price for a VMware hypervisor, although it comes without any support arrangement. All hypervisor management will need to be through the vSphere client or the new HTML5 host client. Make sure to have a backup that enables you to restore your VMs if this single server fails, burns down or gets stolen. A PC or network-attached storage (NAS) in a remote part of your office, or a cloud-based backup is a good idea.

Cover your bases with VMware Essentials

If having all of your VM eggs in one physical server basket is too great a risk, then there is another option: a small shared storage array and up to three physical servers licensed with one of VMware vSphere Essentials bundles.

These bundles are the cheapest way to license a VMware cluster. The Essentials Plus bundle includes a lot of useful features that are not included with the Essentials bundle or free ESXi. The VMs get stored on the small array. Usually, the array is a NAS device with iSCSI or Network File System storage rather than a dedicated Fibre Channel network and array. The VMs can be spread over the physical servers with vCenter, VMotion and vSphere HA all available. Now physical servers can be maintained without shutting down every VM. Also, VMs are automatically recovered after a physical host failure.

At this level, the storage array won't have multiple controllers and failover, so it is still a single point of failure. You will still need some sort of backup. Again, make sure the backup is connected to something separate from the production platform. Backup to a cloud service has the advantage of being physically remote and immune to the office burning down.

If you are looking to replace a five-year-old vSphere deployment at a small business, there are lots of options; plenty of cloud services are available. Some small businesses are moving to all software as a service IT models. For those that still need their own servers, there are plenty of options. A single ESXi server with the free hypervisor can handle a lot of IT for a small business. If downtime is expensive, consider using the vSphere Essentials Plus bundle.

Next Steps

The cost and benefits of VMware vSphere for small businesses

Avoid disaster by keeping your vSphere design simple

How can small businesses take advantage of virtualization?

This was last published in August 2016

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