Virtualisation — the move from real, physical hardware to virtual hardware — is being seen as one of the “next big things” in IT. There are more virtualisation options for IT departments than ever before, including XenSource’s and Virtual Iron Software’s open-source applications, Microsoft’s Virtual Server and VMware’s venerable products.

But if you’re new to this party, you might not know how to get started. Here’s the workflow and procedure I recommend for assessing whether virtualisation is right for you and, if it is, for getting things moving.

1. Determine whether your servers are ripe for consolidation

Consolidating hardware is the No. 1 reason for considering virtualisation. Aging hardware, bursting data centres and burgeoning power needs all have played a part in the move to virtualisation. Why should you continue to acquire distinct physical machines when you can move real servers to even bigger machines at ratios of 3-to-1 or even 10-to-1?

The first step in virtualisation is determining if you have the right type of infrastructure to support it. Look for a lot of machines doing similar tasks, and make sure you have more than 10 of them. For 10 or fewer, the payoff is questionable.

2. Get the administrative headaches out of the way

Any complex move like server consolidation is likely to affect some internal processes. As in any major project, it’s important to get stakeholder support and management buy-in. You’ll most likely need to present a business case for moving to virtual services, including total financial outlay and money saved. You may also have to address staffing: As the number of physical servers is reduced, some budgets dictate that staff size must be reduced proportionally. You may be required to anticipate workloads and quantify the effect that fewer physical servers — but more virtual servers — would have on your department’s overall workload.

Also, examine your licensing needs. Depending on which software you’ll be running on your virtual machines and what their configurations are, you may need to adjust licensing.

3. Select your hardware and software

There are several choices at a variety of prices. It all comes down to whether you need simple server consolidation or advanced hosting and network configuration capabilities. Several vendors have starter kits that let you pilot and explore the technology for a relatively low cost.

4. Start moving to virtualisation

When the time comes to actually move from physical to virtual, there are some migration tools that can help. Microsoft will soon release tools that let you move a fully installed server running a supported version of Windows to a virtual hard-disk format that is fully supported by its Virtual Server product. VMware has a similar tool in the works. These migration utilities can save you hours, if not days, when you’re performing the actual move. Other things to consider:

  • Take advantage of clustering capabilities. Using high-performance clusters gives your virtual machines higher availability and improved performance.

  • Think about management. How will your staff manage the virtual machines? What scripting languages and APIs does your virtual server software support? Are you able to access certain controls via the command line for simple remote-access-based administration?

  • Don’t forget about storage. You’ll need a very fast disk subsystem to get maximum performance from your virtualised servers. Typically, you’ll find that iSCSI-based disk offerings are a good value. They are fast and reasonably priced and have great configurability.

5. Monitor, assess, tweak, improve

When the final boot into the virtualised operating system is finished, your job still isn’t over. Keep tabs on the project as you begin moving users and services to the new platform. Establish performance and usage guidelines and thresholds, monitor them, and tie those metrics to future enhancements. Consider tweaking hardware configurations and network setups or increasing bandwidth as needed.