August 05, 2013, 1:47 PM — Virtualization. The word evokes complex, pricey technologies beyond the grasp of all but the biggest enterprises. But virtualization offers many benefits for small businesses, including cost savings and IT efficiency. And options such as Oracle's VirtualBox and VMware Workstation have put the technology within reach of small business budgets.
Here are some suggestions for how you can leverage the power of virtualization in your small business.
Replace an old or unsupported machine
It happens often enough: The developer of a niche software that you're using goes out of business, or the software is no longer supported. The original installation files are nowhere to be found, and you aren't sure of the configuration settings anyway.
Rather than spending money to replace a perfectly working app, or keeping your fingers crossed hoping the machine running it will last a couple more years, why not just virtualize the entire PC? That's easy enough using software such as the free VMware vCenter Converter. This allows you to continue using the unsupported software on any desktop or laptop with sufficient RAM and a decent processor, albeit in a virtualized environment.
Obviously, running unsupported software is never desirable from a security perspective. Be sure to only run virtual machines (VMs) containing such apps behind a firewall.
Create a system backup
Using the same method outlined above, you can make a "snapshot" of a server into a VM as a system backup. A VM backup can help your business quickly get up to speed after a catastrophic hardware failure. While a VM copy is no substitution for daily data backups (you will need the data backups to restore your server), having a recent image handy can keep business downtime to a minimum and buy you time to acquire and configure new physical hardware.
Provide internal services
Are you looking to setup a Wiki for internal use or testing out a Jabber IM deployment within the company intranet? In such scenarios, virtualization makes it easy for businesses to setup an environment without cluttering up existing machines or having to purchase new hardware. If the initial deployment or trial is successful, the VM can be easily moved onto a dedicated virtual server machine or quickly expanded simply by tweaking VM parameters such as RAM and CPU allocation.
Mobile devices have allowed business users to work from virtually anywhere, but there are times when an employee will need to access a PC-only app from the road or use a desktop browser for websites that won't load properly on a mobile one. Fortunately, Remote Desktop Protocol-clients for iOS, Android, and Windows RT enable users to connect to their office workstations in these situations.
Rather having employees connect directly to their desktops, set up a VM to serve as the RDP host, making sure to configure only the services that they need. Keeping work machines segregated this way adds an extra layer of security.
The prevalence of cyber attacks targeting Web browsers puts your business data at increased risk. An easy, inexpensive way to combat it is to limit Web browsing activities to a virtual environment that has no access to sensitive files. Should a hacker break through the Web browser, a quick restart will conveniently erase any malware or modified system files (assuming the VM was started in read-only mode).
Distribute apps without having to install them
Apps can also be packaged and distributed within a VM image. This is a great method for transporting your favorite apps on a flash drive between home and work, and is also a way to ensure that your software demo will not fail due to missing drivers and code libraries. Finally, this tactic can also be used to run multiple instances of an application such as Yahoo Messenger and Skype, with different instances mapped to different accounts.