Microsoft infrastructure architecture considerations: part 4 (virtualisation)

Continuing the series of posts on the architectural considerations for designing a predominantly-Microsoft IT infrastructure, based on the MCS Talks: Enterprise Infrastructure series, in this post I’ll look at some of the architectural considerations for using virtualisation technologies.

Virtualisation is a huge discussion point right now but before rushing into a virtualisation solution it’s important to understand what the business problem is that needs to be solved.

If an organisation is looking to reduce data centre hosting costs through a reduction in the overall heat and power requirements then virtualisation may help – but if they want to run applications that rely on legacy operating system releases (like Windows NT 4.0) then the real problem is one of support – the operating system (and probably the application to) are unsupported, regardless of whether or not you can physically touch the underlying platform!

Even if virtualisation does look like it could be a solution (or part of one), it’s important to consider management – I often come up against a situation whereby, for operational reasons, virtualisation is more expensive because the operations teams see the host machine (even it if it just a hypervisor) as an extra server else that needs to administered. That’s a rather primitive way to look at things, but there is a real issue there – management is the most important consideration in any virtualisation solution.

Microsoft believes that it has a strong set of products when it comes to virtualisation, splitting the technologies out as server, desktop, application and presentation virtualisation, all managed with products under the System Center brand.

Microsoft view of virtualisation

Perhaps the area where Microsoft is weakest at the moment (relying on partners like Citrix and Quest to provide a desktop broker service) is desktop virtualisation. Having said that, it’s worth considering the market for a virtualised desktop infrastructure – with notebook PC sales outstripping demand for desktops it could be viewed as a niche market. This is further complicated by the various alternatives to a virtual desktop running on a server somewhere: remote boot of a disk-less PC from a SAN; blade PCs (with an RDP connection from a thin client); or a server-based desktop (e.g. using presentation virtualisation).

Presentation virtualisation is also a niche technology as it failed to oust so called “thick client” technologies from the infrastructure. Even so it’s not uncommon (think of it as a large niche – if that’s not an oxymoron!) and it works particularly well in situations where there is a large volume of data that needs to be accessed in a central database as the remote desktop client is local to the data – rather than to the (possibly remote) user. This separation of the running application from the point of control allows for centralised data storage and a lower cost of management for applications (including session brokering capabilities) and, using new features in Windows Server 2008 (or with third party products on older releases of Windows Server), this may further enhanced with the ability to provide gateways for RPC/HTTPS access (including a brokering capability) (avoiding the need for a full VPN solution) and web access/RemoteApp sessions (terminal server sessions which appear as locally-running applications).

The main problem with presentation virtualisation is incompatibility between applications, or between the desktop operating system and an application (which, for many, is the main barrier to Windows Vista deployment) – that’s where application virtualisation may help. Microsoft Application Virtualization (App-V – formerly known as SoftGrid) attempts to solve this issue of application to application incompatibility as well as aiding application deployment (with no requirement to test for application conflicts). To do this, App-V virtualises the application configuration (removing it from the operating system) and each application runs in it’s own runtime environment with complete isolation. This means that applications can run on clients without being “installed” (so it’s easy to remove unused applications) and allows administration from a central location.

The latest version of App-V is available for a full infrastructure (Microsoft System Center Application Virtualization Management Server), a lightweight infrastructure (Microsoft System Center Application Virtualization Streaming Server) or in MSI-delivered mode (Microsoft System Center Application Virtualization Standalone Mode).

Finally host (or server) virtualisation – the most common form of virtualisation but still deployed on only a fraction of the world’s servers – although there are few organisations that would not virtualise at least a part of their infrastructure, given a green-field scenario.

The main problems which host virtualisation can address are:

  • Optimising server investments by consolidating roles (driving up utilisation).
  • Business continuity management – a whole server becomes a few files, making it highly portable (albeit introducing security and management issues to resolve).
  • Dynamic data centre.
  • Test and development.

Most 64-bit versions of Windows Server have enterprise-ready virtualisation built in (in the shape of Hyper-V) and competitor solutions are available for a 32-bit environment (although most hardware purchased in recent years is 64-bit capable and has the necessary processor support). Windows NT is not supported on Hyper-V; however – so if there are legacy NT-based systems to virtualise, then Virtual Server 2005 R2 my be a more appropriate technology selection (NT 4.0 is still out of support, but at least it it is a scenario that has been tested by Microsoft).

In the next post in this series, I’ll take a look at some of the infrastructure architecture considerations relating to for security.

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