IT Trends | Feature

Virtualization's Highs and Lows: A Campus CIO's View

Virtualization has allowed Miami Dade College to eke more out of its existing equipment, save on some kinds of expenses, and in some cases improve service. The cons? As CIO Karl Herleman explained in this interview, juggling the sprawling virtualized mass of server and desktop software can be a real chore. And for cost savings, virtualization hasn't always been the winner.

There isn't a corner of Miami Dade College's (MDC) IT infrastructure that hasn't been touched by virtualization. For the last four years, CIO Karl Herleman has spearheaded a movement to virtualize just about every aspect of the Hialeah, FL-based college's technology equipment, from servers to desktops to data storage units.

"When I got here four years ago, the college had already started its push for virtualization with other technologies," said Herleman, a former enterprise architect for Gartner in Boston. He took the initiative to the next level after coming onboard. "At that point we made virtualization part of our operations," he said, "and since then its been applied just about everywhere."

MDC uses VMware's software for desktops, servers, and other devices. The school has applied the virtualization concept--which allows organizations to pool and share IT hardware and software and provides centralized management over technology assets and improved resource sharing--across much of its campus.

Herleman said key drivers for virtualization included the need to eke more out of MDC's existing equipment. "It was clear that there were some real advantages in using virtualization to drive machines harder and to buffer them from one another," Herleman explained, noting that the strategy also helps extend the life of obsolete equipment. With very old machines, for example, virtualization serves as a way to keep them running when you can't get hardware and/or support for them anymore.

The economy has also played a role in MDC's push for virtualization, said Herleman, whose department has been able to avoid buying new, physical servers and other pieces of equipment as a result of the strategy. "There are still licensing fees to pay, but even with those costs factored in it's still more economical to go virtualized than to buy new equipment," said Herleman.

Virtualization also allows for easier set up and faster fulfillment of new technology requests from users. "When we had to buy the hardware, the process took a couple of weeks to get through purchasing, not to mention having to wait for delivery and installation," said Herleman. "Now we throw together virtual machines in no time."

That compressed time period has increased user expectations dramatically, said Herleman, "even to the point where when I deal with a lot of 'non-technical' users who say to me, 'can we just create another virtual environment here?'" But remember, Herleman cautioned, that every one of those virtual environments still has to be managed, set up properly, and pointed in the direction of the correct databases and integrated systems.

"Virtualization doesn't come totally for free," said Herleman. "It does save money, and some time on provisioning, but these environments must still be patched and managed." Those tasks fall squarely upon the shoulders of MDC's IT team, which over the last four years has found itself focused on managing user expectations, which range from a perceived "ease" of creating the environments, to the massive "sprawl" that has occurred within the campus IT infrastructure.

"My team has gone from managing hundreds of servers to dealing with twice as many virtual environments, particularly on the server side," said Herleman. And while virtualization management tools have improved over the last few years, Herleman said juggling that sprawling mass of server and desktop software can be a real chore, particularly when staff expansions are out of the question.

With virtualization, there's also the issue of deciding which components should be on the system, and which should be handled in a more traditional manner. On the MDC campus right now, for example, desktop implementation of the software is "kind of in between the two," according to Herleman.

"We've done desktop virtualization on a few campuses, and we've completed a few pilots," he explained, "but we've kind of held off in that area because I was able to get a deal for a large refresh of our desktop PCs at below what it would have cost to use virtualized computers."

During his four years managing a virtualized environment at MDC, Herleman picked up a few good strategies for implementing such initiatives on a college campus. Have a plan in place before you start shopping around for the software, he said, and always keep an eye on the bottom line.

"You may not need all of the features and functionality that the software offers, so focus on matching the product with the use and the need," said Herleman, who constantly urges his IT team to look at driving down costs and finding solutions that don't impose additional fees.

"I'm a fan of VMware, but the savings aren't as great as they once were with that [option]," said Herleman. "Hopefully we'll see more competition among vendors. Microsoft offers a fairly viable platform that may not be as full-featured as VMware, but that is 'close enough' for a lot of organizations."

With the infrastructure in place, use good naming conventions and repeatable documents, said Herleman, and always ask users how and why the virtualization is going to be utilized. "You don't want to proliferate a bunch of environments just because users ask for them," he said. "Plan ahead, and use as many repeatable processes as possible in order to standardize, and avoid excessive sprawl and 'rogue' machines that wind up unmanaged or unused."

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