IT Trends | Feature

Virtualizing the Campus Data Center

Reducing servers in the data center through virtualization saved so much money for Loyola University Chicago that the move paid for itself almost before the project was complete. At another Chicago institution, Saint Xavier University, annual virtualization savings from energy cuts and less hardware is estimated at some $7,500 a year--including not just a smaller utility bill, but fewer software licenses and greater efficiency.

Saint Xavier's 'Green Angle'
And, by reducing the overall server load, virtualization has brought an added benefit: Regardless of the original reasons for the downsizing, the much-unappreciated campus data center may well get a PR boost for "going green."

"It did help to mention the green angle" in proposing Saint Xavier's data center revamp, according to Dan Lichter, director of data and network infrastructure at Saint Xavier.

The university, an independent Catholic institution in Chicago with 5,000-plus students, had launched an office of sustainability, and dormitory buildings had gotten awards for green steps. "There was an overall [environmental] tone, and the timing was right," he said, "for both the whole country and for higher ed--there is a lot of attention and thought being put to [energy efficiency issues] right now."

That attitude helped foster appreciation for the change and an attitude of cooperation at Saint Xavier when the data center was briefly down during the move.

Saint Xavier's revamp was begun in late 2008 with the virtualization of some servers. "We went down from 50 or so to 20," Lichter said. "It increased efficiency as well as reliability, so it was a win-win." The original driver for the change was the need to make the university's data center more reliable and to update the power and cooling system to keep up with demand.

The following year, Saint Xavier's success story enabled the university to make another energy reduction move, downsizing an eight-year-old UPS device that handled all of the data center's servers. With fewer servers to support, it was a good time to move to a more efficient UPS that brought a 30 percent reduction in power usage with little power loss, Lichter said. Additional downsizing is planned that will address several more physical servers in the data center.

In terms of a hard total return on investment measurement, Lichter said, the payoff for the new servers is perhaps two years. Calculating out from the late 2008 project, he estimated that the new servers have probably paid for themselves by now through more efficient use of power.

Each new server in the Saint Xavier data center costs about $15,000, including hardware, software licensing (including Windows and backup software), and configuration. That figure doesn't include storage costs, which are additional and shouldn't be overlooked, Lichter said. Much of the software cost for new servers, he pointed out, can be saved by migrating existing software such as Windows to the new hardware. Saint Xavier uses VMWare for virtualization, and the cost of that license is included in Lichter's estimate.

The reduction in software licensing costs due to the reduced number of servers was another savings for Saint Xavier. "That's a benefit we didn't [anticipate] originally, but is easily quantifiable," Lichter said. "SQL Server [licensing alone] would have been prohibitively costly."

There are other important benefits to a virtualization project, Lichter pointed out--ones that are more difficult to measure than straight energy savings. "People need to keep in mind the intangible benefits like speed, flexibility, and reliability," he said, that come with a revamped data center. He and his staff sleep better at night knowing the data center is properly equipped, and that "our end users ... are all happier. We can get them what they need faster than ever before."

While Saint Xavier has some monitoring and notification abilities through the UPS and cooling systems, Lichter said that it was only during the data center downsizing that he learned about software for tracking energy efficiency, available free from the United States Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Energy. "Taking advantage of those features is underway," Lichter said. "It's a learning curve."

A final big benefit from the project is that Lichter now works much more closely with the campus facilities team. "I have learned a lot more about electricity than I ever thought I would [during this project.] And my counterpart has learned about how to cool servers. That's been a big return." For example, the two teams are now working on incorporating fire alarm notifications into the network infrastructure notification systems. If a fire panel is malfunctioning, software can notify the facilities team.

Loyola's Savings and Increased Flexibility
At Loyola University, another Chicago institution, energy savings was a side benefit of virtualization, "but to be honest, the real driver was the flexibility virtualization afforded us," according to Loyola University's Dan Vonder Heide, director for infrastructure services. The university started its virtualization program in 2007 and has been "going strong ever since," he said. "We've really shifted the way we look at server allocation."

The main reasons for virtualization included flexibility and redundancy, confirmed Jeffrey Apa, who is the server operations and data center manager at Loyola, as well as reducing the physical footprint, which in turn translates into energy savings.

Loyola has long had green initiatives in place, including energy-efficient buildings and a bio-diesel program, along with an award from the state of Illinois for designing an energy efficient space. In line with that ideology, the university proposed an entire new data center design in 2007, constructed around the idea of being more efficient.

Cost savings due to energy reductions were realized almost instantly. "As soon as we put in a virtual server, there was an immediate savings within a week," Apa said.

The university's primary data center, at 2,000 square feet, currently has some 360 servers, 60 percent of them virtual. With virtualization, Loyola estimated it's saving 350 percent over previous costs per each fully utilized server, Vonder Heide said. That's based on the cost of each blade or server and on the fact that the university typically fits 30 virtual guest servers on each physical server and has been able to reduce energy consumption by at least 5.32 kVA (kilo-volt amperes, a unit of power) for each physical server box implemented.

"The savings are pretty straightforward," Vonder Heide said. "And that doesn't even take into account smaller footprint and resulting energy savings," Apa pointed out, as well as software savings from a reduced number of software licenses.

Reducing energy usage is "just part of our culture," Apa said. "We have 15,000 students who are always making sure we're doing the right thing." The virtual data center, he added, fits right in with items at Loyola that get much more publicity, such as energy-conscious buildings and the university's bookless library. "Any university that hasn't invested in virtualization is missing out on an opportunity," Apa said.

About the Author

Linda Briggs is a freelance writer based in San Diego, Calif. She can be reached at lbriggs@lindabriggs.com.

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