Virtualisation provides multiple efficiencies

By Dave Bailey
23 Feb 2009 View Comments
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VMware virtualisation cuts power costs for Winchester City Council and Lancaster University

With IT budgets under pressure across the board, increasing numbers of organisations are turning to virtualisation technology to make datacentres and desktop estates more cost effective.

Lancaster University, situated on the 200 acre Bailrigg site, has an annual income of about £149 million, with more than 2,000 staff and over 17,000 students. As an organisation it wanted to reduce the carbon footprint of its datacentre, while supporting increased computing services.

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The quest to deploy more power-efficient infrastructure was instigated as it became apparent that a capacity problem was looming, says Matt Storey, Lancaster University's systems technical coordinator for its information systems services. "We realised, we were hitting our cooling and power capacity at one of our datacentres, and we started looking around for technology to counter this," he says.

Following discussions with Dell's storage consultants, the university implemented an EMC CX3-10C storage area network, and began to further explore the potential of virtualised systems.

A small pilot scheme, using VMWare virtualisation software on standard rack-mounted servers, was quickly followed by a full production rollout. This consisted of Dell PowerEdge M600 servers, using Intel quad-core processors, connected to the SAN through the blade’s Cisco fibre channel (FC) switches. The SAN is used for Lancaster University’s administrative systems as well as its research, and for students' storage requirements.

The enterprise version of VMware’s ESX Server was installed on the servers, allowing the university to reduce the physical space the servers were occupying together with the associated power requirements.

“As a knock on from that we were also able to reduce our peripheral connectivity, such as KVM cabling, and our network connectivity became much more simplified,” adds Storey.

The main reason for using VMware, instead of Microsoft’s virtualisation software, was product maturity.

"At the time we went to trial, Microsoft had yet to release their upgraded virtualisation technology, Hyper-V, and we were using VS 2005, which didn't have the feature set provided by VMware. We have tested Microsoft's technology but we'll be waiting to see how that technology develops,” says Storey.

The VMware’s VMotion technology allows Lancaster University to "fast provision" servers, explains Storey. Virtual machines can be provisioned in a matter of minutes, negating the need for lengthy hardware commissioning cycles.

ESX Server also provides Storey with a single-page administration console, which provides an overview of the entire server estate. Currently, the university has approximately 160 servers in its virtual environment.

Lancaster University’s storage capacity is also being used more efficiently, through a far more dynamic and flexible model. Usage rates have increased substantially, and it is better able to allocate resources, such as storage, on the fly, according to Storey.

“In essence we can set up alerts to provision storage when thresholds are breached. We're actively looking at trending hardware performance such as processor and storage use so that we can predict requirements further down the line,” he says.

Energy use has also been climbing up the agenda at Winchester City Council, which is responsible for providing services to a population of about 110,000 people.

The council found that managing its fast-growing server infrastructure was time consuming and expensive. Also its distributed storage environment could not scale to accommodate a new electronic document records management system (EDR MS).

“Scalability was really important for us because we’re always adding new applications and services as we strive to respond to public demand," says Winchester City Council head of information and management technology Sheila Davidge.

Winchester conducted an in-depth cost analysis of operations and devised a business case which to cut the number of servers and associated power costs and improve support, by investment in SAN and virtualisation technology.

It used a combination of Dell PowerEdge 2950 Servers, a Dell EMC CX3-20C SAN, and VMware’s virtualisation software.

As well as reduced power utilisation, Davidge says a recent disaster recovery test – expected to take a week – ended up taking just two to three working days. “Obviously a proper disaster recovery situation would have us working round the clock, but the reduced recovery times using virtualisation was an added benefit,” says Davidge.

In the future, Winchester plans to use virtualisation technology to support flexible working, through the introduction of hot desks. “We offer a variety of flexible working options – we have people doing nine-day fortnights, four-day weeks, part-time people, and people working full time at home," she says.

"Our flexible workers have to have 2Mbit/s minimum broadband, and they seem to be able to work on that fine. We have 57 councillors who can work at home if they want.”

Currently, Davidge is testing Citrix XenApp desktop virtualisation on her own desktop. "At some point we're going to go thin client. The thin client device consumes four to 10 watts whereas PCs consume much more,” she says.

“We have a programme of work called the 2010 agenda. We're trialling Wyse thin clients, but at the back end we have all Dell servers and we're using Appsense to manage the user client profiles,” says Davidge.

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