Computers were originally designed to run only a single operating system and a single application but virtualization (usually spelt the American way) breaks that bond, making it possible to run multiple operating systems and multiple applications on the same computer at the same time.

Thus, one physical computer can function as if it were two or more computers – or “virtual machines” and each virtual machine can run its own operating system. Just like a “real” computer – a virtual computer contains it own virtual (ie software-based) CPU, RAM hard disk and network interface card (NIC).

An operating system can’t tell the difference between a virtual machine and a physical machine, nor can applications or other computers on a network. Nevertheless, a virtual machine is composed entirely of software and contains no hardware components.

Virtualization has been getting a lot of press coverage recently with the issuing of VMWare shares and the Citrix multi million dollar purchase of Xensource.

How can virtualization help?

At Wilson Nesbitt we are undergoing the visualization of all of our servers, desktop client operating systems and application software. Our virtualization project, originally born out of a disaster recovery business continuity plan coupled with a strategic review of IT systems, has resulted in a large number of benefits to us as a firm.

For example, the time it takes to provision a Windows server has now been reduced from weeks to literally hours. Desktop operating system installation and user account creation has been reduced from hours to minutes. The life of legacy software (written for earlier operating systems that we never seem to have time to upgrade) has been extended by years.

Less hardware has resulted in power savings, equipment purchase savings, backup tape and drive savings, reduced hardware support contracts and less server rack space. Applications can be set up for users remotely, often removing the need for an IT support person to visit the end user. Our disaster recovery plan, which involve moving and beginning to work from a second site, has been reduced from weeks to days.

More benefits

Virtualization makes it possible to achieve significantly higher resource utilization by pooling common infrastructure resources.

You can reduce the number of servers and related IT hardware in a server room or data centre. This leads to reductions in equipment floor space requirements, power and cooling requirements, backup tape drives and hardware support agreements, resulting in significantly lower IT costs.

With new way of managing IT infrastructure, IT administrators can spend less time on repetitive tasks such as provisioning, configuration, monitoring and maintenance.

Costs and problems

Whilst you do save time and money in the long term, installing the right solution takes time and money. Licence costs increase immediately and new hardware needs to be purchased despite the ”˜old’ equipment still working.

Not all software can be virtualised.

Varieties of technologies must be used to create the right solution and it has taken us almost 18 months to find and implement the right mix of solutions. A great deal of IT time is needed to learn about these technologies and then to train staff to use them.

Conclusion

Virtualization is changing the computing landscape for many firms. This is a technology that won’t go away. I recommend that you take the time to investigate it as there are considerable benefits for law firms to be had.

Further reading:
en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Virtualization
www.networkworld.com/topics/virtualization.html

Kieran Gilmurray is the IT director of Northern Ireland firm Wilson Nesbitt Solicitors.

Email kgilmurray@wilson-nesbitt.co.uk.

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