Virtualisation – What does it all mean and do I need it?

You may have heard about Virtualisation, perhaps on the Web, maybe from an technology supplier. maybe even me! It’s sounds exciting but what exactly is it and is it something you need or even want? It’s a slightly complex thing to understand but I’ll try and explain it in simple terms.

Typically, you get a computer, with a processor, a hard drive and some memory. The operating system is installed on the hard disk, you load up your software in to the operating system and off you go (whether a laptop, desktop or server).

In the “olden days”, servers were usually tasked with one main task, such as Email, File storage or Database. As processing power became cheaper over time it became worthwhile to look at consolidating some of these services (which led to the release of Microsoft Small Business Server). As server technology became even more powerful the next stage was to look at physical server consolidation hence the birth of Virtualisation.

Virtualisation creates a layer where the client operating system (be it Windows Desktop or Server) is run on a Virtual Machine sitting on some kind of host server. So this leads to the next questions, what is a Virtual Machine? And what is a host server.

We’ll start with the host server as this is the foundation that everything sits on.

A host machine will typically this will be a relatively powerful machine, with large amounts of processing power, lots of disk space and ram. On this we install a base Operating system. The big names in Virtualisation are VMWare and Microsoft. Both offer a free (essentially unsupported) or paid for versions of the software (Microsoft offer it as a component within Windows Server 2008 and 2012) and as a stand-alone product (Hyper-V). We won’t look at licensing here as it’s outside the scope of this article.

Once we have the base Operating system installed and configured, we have something called a Hypervisor, which is the system that allocates and manages resources on the base server for the virtual machines.

Virtualization concept

So what is a virtual machine?

Essentially a Virtual Machine is a collection of settings, such as number of processors, size of disks, how much ram etc. The beauty of this is that physical hardware is now abstracted from the operating system, meaning that a standard (and consistent) set of components are supplied to the virtual machine which makes it hardware independent.

VMWare LogoApple Mac users have been using some of this technology for some time with software such as Parallels and VMWare which allowed them to run a Virtual Windows desktop on their Mac so they can run Windows Applications within their Mac. Microsoft brought it in to the mainstream with Windows 7 Professional and the XP mode which was provided to give some compatibility respite for older applications.

Here at The Engine Room we now use visualisation on almost all of our server implementations. With Windows Server 2012 Microsoft made it possible to run one physical and two virtual machines with one license, thus reducing the cost of having a virtualised environment. This means that with a single license you can have two servers running separate applications, such as one with Microsoft Exchange and run with File and Print services, all for the cost of one Server license! We also like using it because (most of the time) the server Operating system is quite reliable and it’s the hardware that can cause headaches. By removing the hardware from the equation reliability improves as will the process of managing upgrades (such as increasing capacity and performance).

Hyper-V-logo

So should you be using it? Server side it makes sense as it faciliates the use of additional servers without always needing new hardware (disk space and memory excepted) and an easy migration path to newer or different server hardware. Desk side it can make sense although really if you need to be using different platform applications I would seriously consider whether you are on the right platform or set up a dedicated machine in that function so you are not trading off performance or capacity for compatibility (see Roman’s article about that here).

So is Windows Phone 8 any good?

Image

It was with a feeling of trepidation that I decided to ditch Apple’s iOS after having been an avid iPhone fanboy since the beginning. I loved the simplicity, wealth of apps and the solid design. So why change?

I found myself in the Apple trap, where you feel compelled to get the latest and greatest just because it’s new. However, each edition tended to only bring small improvements and change, and after upgrading from a 4 to 4s I started to feel a little jaded by the whole thing.

So having seen Windows Phone 8 arrive, I decided to make the jump and try something new. Having used Windows 8 on my desktop , I figured it would make sense to try for a more seamless experience. At the time the HTC 8X was an o2 exclusive and the Nokia (https://www.o2.co.uk/shop/phones/nokia/lumia-920/) was a Vodafone exclusive so on a wet and cold December evening, I tromped off to the o2 store and bought a shiny new HTC 8X (https://www.o2.co.uk/shop/phones/htc/windows-phone-8x/). Everyone said I’d hate it and would be back to my iPhone in less than a week!

Now, as an aside, the guy in the o2 shop was amazing! I was determined to change phone, but he also managed to switch me on to a more appropriate tariff as well (saving £25 per month!).

So first thoughts – the Interface is simple and friendly. Windows Phone uses “Tiles” on the home screen – these can be dynamic and show you bits of content (such as the weather, or News for instance). Applications not on the home screen are all grouped together in a list (which can get quite long) but you can click on the Search item and lookup). Typically you’ll put your most useful or favourite Apps on the home screen in any case.Windows 8 Home Screen

Setting it up was easy – as it’s essentially Outlook on the phone, setting up my Exchange email account was a breeze, as was getting it connected to my SkyDrive (if you use Office 365 that’s equally easy to set up). Apps are installed via the “Store” App (and you’ll see a distinct lack of Apps compared to Android and Apple – more on that later) and is a fairly simple and straightforward exercise. I’ll admit to not having purchased any Apps so I cannot comment on what that experience is like.

Apps

Anyway, to ensure my commitment to this new phone, I cleaned up my iPhone 4s and gave it to my mum (who promptly fell in love with it – but that’s another story!) and off I went in to this brave new world.

And you know what? It was ok. Some things took a bit of getting used to, and I missed some Apps (most notably the Barclays banking App) but after a week, it was starting to fit quite nicely in to my life. As a fairly simple user, my demands were not high, but it pretty much did what I needed it to and in a very easy and simple way. No fuss, no bother. It just worked. The limited choice of Apps did initially bother me, but new ones are arriving all the time, and it’s altogether possible that there is too much choice on the other platforms. It’s worth being aware that certain Apps are unlikely to appear any time soon, such as Banking and perhaps other manufacturers (such as BMW) will probably not find the investment in creating Apps for Windows Phone worthwhile.

And so time passed by, and the recent announcement of iOS 7 and (invariably) another evolution of the iPhone prompted me to think about my phone and write this little piece about it. Will I go back to an Apple iPhone? Possibly, although it would need to be pretty compelling considering the high cost of the phone and most likely very minor changes from the 5. The Nokia Lumia 925 (https://www.o2.co.uk/shop/phones/nokia/lumia-925/) is a very nice looking Windows phone (the camera in the HTC is rubbish – The Nokia camera is significantly better) and if I was in the market for a new phone that’s what I’d be getting.

With the imminent release of 8.1 it’ll be interesting to see what that brings although I suppose Windows Mobile 8.5 or 9 will bring the more significant change (and perhaps I’ll be bored of it by then and ready to jump into Android)!