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5 Reasons to Switch to Virtual Servers

Everyone is touting server virtualization as the greatest thing since sliced bread. Is it a worthwhile technology, or just the latest trend?
University Business, Jan 2009

WHEN IT COMES TO SERVERS, YOU CAN have too much of a good thing. Just ask Carsten Puls, vice president of strategic and product marketing for NComputing. “In the past, we needed a different server for every function: internet, e-mail, enterprise resource planning.” As a result, the data centers at NComputing, which offers desktop virtualization solutions, became overloaded with servers. And each server—because it typically performed only one function?used only a portion of its processing capability. In fact, Microsoft reports that the typical server-utilization rate is about 15 percent, with 85 percent of server capacity going unused.

Then came server virtualization, which allows IT departments to consolidate multiple servers onto one machine. “Essentially, server virtualization is efficiency in computing,” says Puls. And that one machine uses up to 90 percent of its capability.

Chellappa Kumar, chief information officer at New York Institute of Technology’s New York College of Osteopathic Medicine, points out other inefficiencies in running multiple servers. “Every server needs to be patched or maintained, which takes a lot of time,” explains Kumar, who is also an associate professor at the school. “A virtual machine has a better-defined environment, so it’s easier to care for server-based applications.”

In addition, buying and configuring a new server every time a professor asks for a new website, for instance, is a poor use of time and resources. “Ordering and then installing a new server can take up to six weeks,” says Kumar. “With virtualization, there is no new hardware each time. I can add to an existing server and be up and running in three hours.”

However, server virtualization is not without its faults. As with any new technology, there is a learning curve. Also, security is a work in progress. “The security piece is not fully developed,” says Kumar. “In three years, we’ll be more comfortable. For now, we need to be cognizant of that fact.”

Intrigued by the promise of server virtualization? Here are some other reasons that colleges and universities have made the switch.

When SunGard Higher Education joined forces with Seattle University five years ago, there were plenty of individual servers running individual applications. “We looked at how much power we were drawing and what the university paid to run the data center,” says Bo Vieweg, director of IT at the university, which outsources its IT functions to SunGard. “As a Jesuit school, one of our goals is to be more sustainable.”

After doing a bit of research, Vieweg and his colleagues decided to virtualize “just about everything except our ERP system,” he explains. That meant virtualizing the institution’s web servers, database servers, e-mail servers, and file servers. Vieweg’s team built the environment and began doing individual migrations of physical servers to virtual machines. Over the last four years, they’ve moved 55 servers onto virtual machines and are down to only a small number of stand-alone servers.

“We’ve had more than a 40-percent cost savings in power and are down 25 percent in maintenance costs,” says Vieweg. “This is a perfect, easy, ‘green’ win for everybody, as well as making sense from a financial perspective. The time for server virtualization has come. You almost have to come up with a reason to not do it, which I don’t say very often.”

Before implementing virtualization with Novell Open Enterprise Server, the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University (D.C.) had a typical setup: two or three server racks with 20 to 30 stand-alone servers, each running one or two significant applications or programs.

It took about a year to get the virtualized servers set up and working properly, but John Carpenter, chief technology officer for the business school, shares that his team continually discovers advantages they didn’t originally foresee. “We didn’t fully realize that when you build a virtual server, you can copy from one server to another. It’s a much simpler process than changing a gazillion standalone machines.”

Maintenance, however, is where virtualization offers a whole host of benefits. “Now that everyone is up on the learning curve, our technicians can easily bring servers up and down, upgrade operating systems, or allocate resources or disk space to different servers. We have a whole lot of options,” says Carpenter.

Before, when they needed a new server, they had to find or buy a piece of physical equipment. To reuse a server, they would have to put it in the rack, connect it, plug in the wires, and then configure it. Today they bring up the virtual software management console, click on a button to create a new server, and choose the operating system. What used to take two or three days now takes an hour or two. No longer does e-mail go down for three days while the staff performs upgrades.

Carpenter can’t sing virtualization’s praises high enough: “If your tech team is spending time crawling behind racks, hooking up wires, and turning down assignments because they take too much time, consider virtualization,” he advises.

Like its peers who have implemented server virtualization, Trinity Washington University (D.C.) is enjoying financial savings and energy efficiency. “We reduced our hardware spending by 87.3 percent, and we’ll be able to reduce our electrical costs in our data center by 82 percent,” says James Tagliareni, director of Information Technology Services. “In fact, we did an ROI and found that virtualization paid for itself in less than five months.”

Tagliareni, who considers himself “old school,” likes to ensure that his decisions are sound. “I really dug in to this, and the only negative I’ve found is the learning curve of getting my staff up to speed. Otherwise, it’s a really good solution.”

One benefit quickly discovered was that virtualization greatly improved disaster recovery. “In September, a server went down. Another server instantly picked up where the other left off. There was no down time, and the end users never knew there was a problem.” Virtualization allows his staff to take snapshot-like images of entire servers, so in a worst-case scenario, with the replica set up to be restored automatically, it would take only minutes to restore a full server from scratch. Before virtualization, when a server went down, the school suffered. During Tagliareni’s first week at Trinity, it took two days of “late, late nights” to get two failed servers back on track. The experience was extremely stressful, he recalls.

To complete the disaster-recovery efforts, Tagliareni—who worked with GovConnection to choose the right server software package for its HP servers?placed a redundant machine in the data center and images off-site. If the server room were to burn down, he could throw those images onto another server and be up and running in minutes.

When it comes to software recovery, virtualization is just as beneficial. “In the past, if there were more than two applications on a server and something went wrong, both applications went down, which can paralyze an institution,” explains Tagliareni. “Now, if one application goes down, the other applications are not affected.”

Hardware is going to fail; that’s the nature of the beast. But virtualization means that instead of losing a day’s worth of work, Trinity’s tech staff can be proactive instead of reactive. “All in all, it’s a great stress reliever and time-management tool,” says Tagliareni.

“With virtualized servers, you think less about the server farm, the infrastructure, and the hardware, and you can focus on providing enhanced services,” says Carpenter. One such offering, which his team at Georgetown is working on, is collaboration. The goal is for the business school to function like a corporate environment, with virtual workspaces where students can share files, edit documents, create blogs and wikis, or set up web conferences.

“In order to add this new, very important collaborative environment for our students, we needed the infrastructure in place,” says Carpenter. “Virtualization makes everything easier.”

Now, instead of offering just e-mail, the business school will be able to run more powerful programs that were not always easy to implement before virtualization. That kind of competitive advantage is something most graduate schools are seeking. “Potentially, it will change how our faculty, students, and staff do business, communicate, and share resources,” says Carpenter.

The goal is to be up and running early this year, but a few administrative details are holding up the rollout. “All of the departments need to think about new ways to put out information to students,” he adds. “It will be infinitely more efficient, less expensive, and quicker, but it is a huge change.”

As Carpenter explains, virtualization lets a small team of technicians provide more, and potentially more sophisticated, services. Using virtualization, the IT staff has reduced implementation time for new applications by 50 percent.

Los Angeles Community College District is the largest two-year district in the United States, with as many as 140,000 students taking classes each semester. “We’re asked to deploy new systems and not given lots of lead time,” says Jorge Mata, provisional chief information officer. “A faculty member can change his lesson plan on the first day of classes. He may have asked for four web servers; now he wants four Microsoft Exchange servers. To meet that need, we have to be able to reconfigure our systems on the fly.”

Virtualization lets Mata’s team deliver quickly and cost-effectively. “In the old days, we would’ve complained,” he admits.

One of the things Mata likes about virtualization is its flexibility. By selecting HP Integrity Superdome Servers, he can make some servers virtual and, if need be, migrate them back to be physical. “Once you go down the virtualization path, you still have options. Sometimes we want to isolate something so there’s no question of impact; it’s easy to move it out and evaluate it on its own.”

Going virtual changed the mindset of Mata’s department. “Before, there was so much that we couldn’t do. The stress level was high, and employees suffered from burnout. Now that we have this capability, we’ve changed our approach to problem solving. We have more options that allow us to make the right decisions.”

Mata says virtualization lets him leverage what his IT staff is good at—thinking. “We want to be the people that make the magic happen, not the ones complaining about what we can’t do.”

Ellen Ullman is a freelance editor and writer in Fairfield, Conn.