IT Trends | Feature

Virtualization's Middle Path

Server virtualization doesn't have to be an all or nothing proposition. One college CIO explains how her school successfully implemented a virtualized server environment, saving money and cutting back on energy use, without sacrificing performance on systems that needed their own dedicated hardware.

Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering's foray into the world of virtualization started with the goal of becoming a more agile and flexible organization. For the Needham, MA-based institution, that meant being able to handle faculty requests for new technology and related services quickly and without having to alter or add much to the school's existing infrastructure.

"Every time someone asked for something new, we had to go out and buy new hardware, set up an operating system, and jump through myriad other hoops to fulfill the request," recalled Joanne Kossuth, CIO and vice president for operations. "We really wanted to streamline that and felt virtualization would help us reach that goal."

Development, Testing
Using virtualization software from VMware, Franklin W. Olin began virtualizing its servers two years ago. In doing so, the college was able to create multiple instances of both servers and applications, increasing its ability to develop and test new services, said Kossuth, "and to have business continuity and improved use of resources."

The school can create up to seven instances within a server and then use those "production environments" to test and develop on an as-needed basis. As a result, it no longer takes three weeks to install a new server and conduct that testing.

"This really allows us to be flexible and fast, depending upon the requirements of the faculty, students, and/or the applications."

Greening It Up
Virtualization has also helped Franklin W. Olin become greener--a benefit that Kossuth said falls in line with the school's ongoing goal of reducing its carbon footprint. It saved hundreds of thousands of dollars over the last few years as a result of its conservation and recycling efforts and is hoping that its newest green project will further enhance that savings.

Take power reduction, for example. According to Kossuth, the virtualized servers require less hardware, electricity, and server-room cooling than their standard counterparts. "That feature alone fits perfectly with what we're trying to do as an institution," she said.

And while the initial setup costs for going "virtual" are anything but cheap, the ongoing fees are less than a college would expect to pay for traditional hardware and software setups.

"Once you get it going, it's definitely a less expensive option," said Kossuth, who advised other IT professionals in the college setting to not only shop around for virtualization software options, but to also be prepared for a learning curve once the project is implemented and rolled out.

Challenges and Training
"The move to a virtualized environment can be a challenge at first as your systems administrators get accustomed to it," said Kossuth, "and as they learn how to best utilize it." To work through those challenges, Kossuth said she impressed upon her team the need to understand which applications work best in which environments--and which ones don't.

Franklin W. Olin's engineering applications, for example, aren't always a good fit for the virtualized environment, and as such are still administered via traditional servers and hardware. During the early stages of implementation, Kossuth said, she also took the time to figure out what percentage of CPUs and hardware components to dedicate to those "traditional" uses, versus those that would be used in the virtual environment.

"We looked at customer traffic and transactions, and then adjusted accordingly," she said.

Professional development also plays a significant role in a college's move to virtualization, said Kossuth, who spent time working with staff members to learn the ins and outs of the VMware software, and to also understand virtualization's "bigger picture" and its pros and cons. To make sure the professional development continues for its IT team, Franklin W. Olin set aside an annual sum of money specifically for such staff training.

Benefits of Server Virtualization, Drawbacks of Desktop Virtualization
Using virtualization, the college's IT team can now upgrade one instance of an application or operating system, see how it works, and then expand the initiative across multiple servers. The team has a better grasp on the implications of such moves within the virtual environment, and an improved management of its IT assets.

Data backup is another important consideration, according to Kossuth, who sat down with her team to map out a backup strategy before implementing the virtualization strategy.

"When you go from backing up one server, to backing up seven machines within one server, you have to revisit your process and frequency of those backups," said Kossuth. After reviewing its options, Franklin W. Olin's IT team decided on a system of "snapshots" and full backups of each machine on a scheduled basis.

With virtualization gaining popularity in higher education, Kossuth has her eye on the desktop iteration but has yet to make a move in that direction. She pointed to cloud computing as a key component of that movement and said issues like business continuity and the use of mobile devices will have to be addressed before the concept gains more acceptance by college IT teams.

"End user expectations are pretty high in terms of control, bandwidth, and rights," said Kossuth. "When you go to a virtualized desktop, you're storing profiles and accessing applications over a network. Planning for these issues is critical."

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