At Your Virtual Service
Thinking about buying new servers? It may be time to go virtual.
VIRTUALIZATION tamed Bryant U's server chaos-and saved significant bucks.
FOR YEARS, ‘CROWDED' was the best
word to use to describe the state of the server
infrastructure at Bryant University (RI).
As recently as 2004, the school had 84
physical servers spread across campus.
Some of these units were in server rooms,
tucked snugly into server racks. Others were
standalone units next to other big machines. A
handful of them were barebones personal
computers, whirring in the back of a department
office. According to Art Gloster, vice
president for information services, the school
had so many servers, it didn't even know how
many there were.
Naturally, when the Board of Trustees started
pushing for Gloster to centralize IT, he
knew he had to make a change. After auditing
the network to see how many servers were
out there, Gloster opted to consolidate. With
a bankroll of $1 million (and various flavors of
hardware and software), he got all of the
servers onto five machines.
"To say that we eliminated redundancy
would be an understatement," he asserts, noting that the
school's consolidation ratio was roughly 15 to 1. "Technically,
we still have 84 servers, only now they're all sitting
on five machines."
What Is ‘Virtualization'?
This process is known as virtualization, and schools across
the country are using it more and more to consolidate
resources and improve efficiencies across the board. The
benefits of this approach are undeniable: Fewer resources
means lower overhead and, ultimately, reduced costs.
The notion of server virtualization is nothing new: In the
days of mainframe computers, technologists termed it
"partitioning." Back then, one machine might house five or
six virtual servers. Today, because physical servers are
smaller and boast exponentially more computing power,
it's easy to fit dozens of virtual servers on one machine.
Technically speaking, virtualized servers mask certain
resources from particular users. IT administrators use a
software application to divide one physical server into
multiple isolated operating systems and environments.
The administrators then program the software to grant
certain access levels to predetermined users, in the OS of
"Having every server in the same spot has made
managing and monitoring them incredibly easy.
In many ways, we've standardized on a platform of
virtualization." —Rich Sedman, Bryant University
At Bryant, the clearance process is handled when users
first log on to the network, meaning that the virtualized
environment is transparent from the user's perspective.
Gloster says this approach is by design, to make the infrastructure as seamless as humanly possible.
"Unless our users know we're using virtualized servers,
they have no way of detecting it," Gloster says. "They log
in like they always have, but behind the scenes, the entire
network is a lot better for everyone involved."
The Road to Virtualization
Bryant's virtualized environment didn't happen overnight,
however. Once the Board of Trustees gave Gloster the
go-ahead to centralize the environment, he conducted an
audit to find out how many servers were on the network.
He called upon Rich Sedman, director of computer and
telecom services, to help him tackle this step. The findings
were surprising: 84 servers in all.
With this number in hand, Gloster and Sedman dispatched
colleagues to get a sense of how departments
were using these servers, and how many of them could be
consolidated onto single machines. The teams discovered
that in some cases, servers were competing with each
other for resources. In these cases, the school eliminated
Next, the university invested in five blade servers from
IBM, and virtualization software from
VMware. Sedman and his team took a
few months to complete the conversion, copying existing
servers onto the IBM machines and separating them with
the help of VMware. The school stored the machines in a
brand-new data center.
Benefits and ROI
"Having every server in the same spot has made managing
and monitoring them incredibly easy," says Sedman.
"In many ways, we've standardized on a platform of
The move has had a number of unintended consequences,
though. First, the switch has enabled the school to
put in a new disaster recovery system that revolves around
standby copies of each server. When IT officials need to
take down a server for maintenance, they simply switch over
to the standby copy, then switch back when they're done.
Of course, another benefit has been improved security.
Because every user must be pre-qualified to access each
virtual server, there are no questions about who has
access where. Furthermore, the VMware software
enables Gloster and Sedman to customize the operating
system for each particular application.
Overall, Gloster estimates Bryant has saved about
$35,000 over the past few years, as the school was able to
eliminate physical maintenance, consolidate storage, and
reduce software licensing fees associated with individual
server management. He adds that fewer machines also use
less energy, which should be a big savings with energy
costs going up. Perhaps the only challenge to Bryant's virtualization
program is its success. The strategy has worked
so well that the school has since adopted a server containment
policy that stipulates all new servers must be virtualized.
What's more, because the servers are so easy to set
up, everybody on campus wants one.
Sedman says departments request at least a dozen
servers a year, and that as long as department heads can
prove the necessity of the server, they get what they want.
"We haven't rejected anybody, but we require people to
answer some questions about what they want and why," he
adds. "Virtual servers are great, but we still want our users
to justify their needs. Just because you can fit any number of
servers on a box doesn't mean you should."
Network file management can help your institution
better manage data resources campuswide.
The rise of virtual machines may tilt the OS dynamic.
2007 Campus Technology Innovator: Rice University foregoes traditional switched networking for a highcapacity,
advanced virtualized network.
Solution Center: Networking and Infrastructure for
the Campus Enterprise.
White Paper: Virtualization in Education.
-Matt Villano, senior contributing editor of this publication,
is based in Healdsburg, CA.