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).

Is training the best Investment you can make

Training

Here at the Engine Room, we often get support requests along the line of “How do I….?”. Often this is for fairly simple things such as adding an email signature or setting up an Out of Office. However sometimes it’s something a bit more involved such as how to do pivot tables in Excel or setup permissions on SharePoint.

So this got me thinking. How much more productive could your team be if they were educated so that they could unleash both the potential in the software and in themselves.

Now, we all know most solutions to most problems can be solved with a quick Google – indeed we know that most technical problems have been seen before and so it’s simply a case of asking the right question and identifying the right answer. Likewise, there are lots of “How to’s” on the internet for almost every productivity application or platform.

But sometimes, it’s neither productive or beneficial in having staff doing self help, compared to getting in some outside help.

For instance, if you are performing a company-wide transition to Office 2013 (via Office 365 as an example) your staff may find themselves with both a different version of Windows and Office; if they’ve been using Windows XP and Office 2007 or earlier, then the leap to Windows 7 or 8 and Office 2013 can be quite substantial.

In these cases it’s very worthwhile getting in some help to guide your team through the changes so that as soon as the transition is completed they can be up and running as quickly as possible. The small investment in time and money will reap huge dividends later as they will already have some familiarity with the new system.

Likewise, if you are introducing something new like SharePoint or MS Project into your organisation it’s definitely worth getting some outside help – this should be done in tandem with your development team as both of these systems will have a uniqueness based on how your business operates. Quite often we come across businesses that have implemented a new system that no-one knows how to use and ultimately take up fails because they have no reason to stop using the old system. Getting your staff to buy in to these changes start much earlier with the scoping of a project but training will help seal the deal.

We work with a number of training partners, notably Alpha Training whom we’ve worked with for many years.

Alpha

They provide bespoke training in your offices designed to fit around your needs and can even help with educating beyond usability and into administration (useful if you are running SharePoint).

Please get in touch if you want to find out more about how training can help your business or if there is anything else we can help you with.

SSDs – what are they and do I want one

So whilst browsing (or dreaming maybe!) for your next laptop, be it a Mac or a Windows machine, you might have noticed that (certainly at the upper end) many of them are coming with something called an SSD, usually in 128GB or 256GB capacities.

What are these mysterious SSDs, why are their sizes in funny numbers rather than the 500GB, 750GB or 1TB sizes of everything else, and most of all, why are they so expensive?

An SSD is a Solid State Drive – these are used in place of HDD (Hard Disk Drive). An HDD is a mechanical device with a spindle where one or more magnetic disk surfaces spin around with a small “head” to read and write data. An SSD has a bunch of memory chips in place of this disk and consequently no mechanical parts (much like your iPhone or newer iPod).

HDDs are great because they are cheap and can provide a lot of storage.

SSDs however are expensive and seem quite small in comparison.

What gives?

Because they are not mechanical they have two big advantages. One is speed. Even a low-end SSD will be significantly faster than an HHD as the act of reading and writing to memory is vastly faster than reading and writing to a disk. Second is reliability and robustness. As there are no moving parts, an SSD will not wear out (in the traditional sense at least) and will tolerate more bumps etc than a mechanical drive. Indeed most laptop failures are due to the hard drive failing.

And as you can imagine, this comes at a price. Compared to mechanical disks, memory chips are expensive – you can see this when you compare the prices of iPhones/iPods with differing memory sizes). This is why you only tend to see SSDs fitted to higher end Ultrabooks and Apple MacBook computers.

So are they worth it? In a nutshell, yes.

Intel SSD

The performance gain is amazing. OK, you lose some space, but then do you really need to store your entire iTunes library on your computer?

We did an experiment a while ago and replaced the hard drive in a old Windows 7 desktop. Prior to the upgrade, from the Windows splash screen appearing to the computer being logged in was about 90 seconds. With the SSD in place this fell to an almost unbelievable 4 seconds. And once booted the machine was snappier and more responsive to boot.

The only big catch is that unless you are a tinkerer, it’s not worth doing the upgrade yourself as it can be quite involved. However, if you are in the market for a new computer, it’s worth exploring especially if it’s a laptop. If you have someone like use helping you with your technology, then upgrading at the time of purchase is a far easier process and worthy of considering.

Want to know more about how SSDs can help in your business? Get in touch and we can see if we can help you.

Remote working? The good the bad and the ugly

In the olden days you’d dial in with your modem to the office network, log in and (very slowly) be able to download and work with files. However, this was unreliable and so slow to be something only used in desperate situations.

USR_Modem

Once ADSL became normal the use of VPN (Virtual Private Networking) became the preferred method of accessing the office network. However, at the same time the size of the files we were using had also grown considerably and before long VPN became slow and tedious to use as well.

With the advent of Cloud based services, such as Office365 and VoIp, the ability to access your data without needing to use VPN’s or other dial-in systems suddenly opened up the ability to detach yourself from the office without huge levels of complexity.

From a business continuity perspective this is amazing – the need for a Disaster recovery centre was removed and as long as your staff had an internet connection they could work. And better still, the outside world wouldn’t even know!

In any case, since the advent of VPN, more businesses permitted staff to work from home. Some companies, such as MoneyPenny and even the AA used this to have a large proportion of their workforce based permanently from home, giving great flexibility to their staff and create significant reductions on staff costs, as well as environmental benefits from reducing the number of vehicles on the road etc.

This however creates it’s own set’s of issues!

Firstly, the member of staff is no longer visible to the rest of the business in the same manner as an office based staff. This means that you have to have high levels of trust that productivity will be maintained. If the staff is more results or task based then this might not matter.

Next, it can get a bit lonely for home workers – factor in how to keep in touch and maintain motivation. Regular team meetings will help as well as social gatherings to help engage your staff.

There are others factors as well, but the last one I’ll mention here is that staff can also misuse this ability and use “working from home” as a way of getting paid for a day when they don’t feel like coming to the office. You will need to consider how you manage this in terms of your company policies.

Now, there are other options too. If you consider that there will be occasions where it is simply not time efficient to get to the office or other practicalities that prevent getting to the office and working from a Starbucks or Costa coffee doesn’t give you the right environment to work in. With this in mind, a number of businesses are creating places where you can work outside of the office.

If you are a Regus customer, or utilise their BusinessWorld service, you can have access to their meeting rooms and workspaces. However, this can be expensive if your needs are a little variable or infrequent.

NearDesk

My friend Tom Ball recently set up a service called NearDesk which (as Tom himself describes) is much like an Oyster for desk space on a PAYG basis. What’s great about this type of space is that it creates nice hubs to go and work and be amongst and around other people, thus preventing the loneliness you may get if working from home.

So some food for thought when considering having a more flexible work force and working environment. As always, if you want to know more, get in touch and we can help you find the best solution for your business.

Office 365 – Everything you need to know!

A little while I wrote a piece about choosing which edition of Office 2013 to get. Judging on the number of questions I get about Office 365 there seems to be some misunderstanding as to what it actually is.

O365 Logo

Many people see it as just a different way of getting the Office desktop software on their computer and paying monthly rather than buying a copy outright.

It’s not. It’s much more than that.

In a nutshell, Office 365 is Microsoft’s collective brand for their SaaS (Software as a Service) or Cloud portfolio. It comprises of a number of different elements, of which the key ones we will explore here.

Exchange Online

This is Microsoft’s Hosted Exchange service – rather than having your Exchange Server on a server in your office this is where your email is provided as a service. Key benefits are no server, no need to worry about backup and very high uptime or availability.

SharePoint with Office WebApps

SharePoint is an interesting one. In some respects it can be considered as a document management system, but really it fits in to the Intranet/Extranet space and allows you to publish documents, shared content etc to both internal and external parties. Additionally, it also comes with Office Web Apps which is essentially a cut down version of Word, Excel and PowerPoint which will allow you to edit documents within the Browser without having to have the applications installed locally, or needing to download the document before editing (which you still can if you want).

Lync

Lync is an internal communication system a bit like Skype except it’s a bit more private. It will link into your Outlook calendar so other people in your directory can see if you’re in based on your diary (it will also change to away if you’re away from your desk for a while) and there is a mobile app that you can have on your iPhone.

Office Professional Plus

The desktop software is the normal Office 2013 we already know. However this is the subscription version and (if you have it) will link in to your SharePoint site so you can access documents on your SharePoint site.

Additionally you can add things like Dynamics CRM online and other applications such as Project Professional and they will integrate in to your overall Office 365 package.

Do I need it?

It often depends on what you want and how you operate as a business. Personally, if you want a nice wrapped up solution that can provide a significant amount of your business technology in one place then I think it’s ideal. If you like running the very latest version of Office and other applications then it’s also ideal from a software lifecycle perspective and allows your entire organisation to be on the same version.

The big catch is that support from Microsoft directly is very limited and rely on Cloud Partners, such as us, to provide the skills in developing, implementing and supporting businesses using 365 as a platform.

If you’re giving it some thought and ready to start moving services in to the cloud then please get in touch to talk about this or any other Cloud services you might be considering.