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Virtual Realities: Lone Star Virtualizes IT Systemwide

Being the nation's fastest-growing community college is both a blessing and a curse for Lone Star College System (LSCS) of Houston. Expanding the system from 68,000 students to more than 85,000 during a 36-month span was an impressive feat, of course, but managing an increasingly strained information technology infrastructure across 14 campuses was literally a balancing act for LSCS' IT team.

The fact that each campus ran its technology infrastructure independently made that balancing act even more difficult to manage. The college's six main campuses and eight smaller, satellite centers weren't sharing data with one another. Most were using systems that were end-of-life in 2008.

Maintenance costs associated with the continual replacement of outdated systems were high and basic student services were lagging under the antiquated infrastructure. New student registration processing was slowing and even stopping during peak periods, for example, and the new classes, computer labs, and instructional applications that were coming online demanded higher levels of support and computer power. Finally, the fact that more students were bringing their own mobile devices on campus was bogging LSCS' existing wireless network.

"We were at the point where we really needed a better way to meet the needs of our faculty, staff, students, and administration," said Link Alander, vice chancellor and CIO. "We also needed more flexibility, reduced costs, and simplified maintenance, as well as high availability for our Tier 1 applications."

With a bond referendum in place to cover the construction of 21 new buildings--plus additional funds allocated for infrastructure improvements--LSCS' IT team began searching for a solution that would ease its growing pains. As assistant vice chancellor at the time, Alander worked with the college's CIO, network administrators, and technical services group to design a solution to meet the administration's and board of trustees' requirements for high availability.

The team didn't have to search very hard to find what it was looking for. After looking at both Microsoft's Hyper-V server and VMware's vSphere, it choose the latter based on the solution's maturity and past experiences with the vendor. "We'd been using VMware since 2005 to handle utility testing and other tasks," said Alander. "We knew that the virtualization of our entire IT infrastructure would be the next step, so making the decision to go in that direction wasn't very difficult."

The need to scale up quickly to meet demand, or power down when that demand waned, also pushed LSCS' implementation team in the direction of a virtualized system. "We wanted to design our architecture to include elastic capacity. As demand rose we wanted to be able to increase the system's horsepower," Alander explained. "We knew that virtualization would allow us to do that, even when student registrations were hitting us hard and demanding a lot from our administrative systems."

3 Roadblocks to Moving Forward with Huge Projects

Overhauling a college's IT infrastructure in a short time frame is never easy. Link Alander pinpointed the three top challenges that Lone Star College System grappled with during its move to virtualization and tells how his team overcame them:

  1. Introducing change management to the team. Humans are naturally resistant to change, particularly when it comes to jobs they've done successfully for a long time. Ripping out 400 physical servers and replacing them with a virtual environment threatened to turn LSCS' human resource infrastructure on end. Questions like, "What's happening to my job and how is it changing?" were posed frequently during the overhaul. Alander said LSCS took an educational approach to the problem, communicated regularly with team members, and made sure there was buy-in across the board. "The key is to get everyone to understand that this is an opportunity for them," Alander said, "and not a threat."
  2. Getting everyone up to speed on the new system. Within 60 days LSCS' IT infrastructure was transformed from hundreds of physical boxes to several blade servers connected to a storage-area network running movable, virtualized servers. System training was prioritized, said Alander, with the institution's technical services team receiving the most intensive training. "We're talking about a totally different environment," said Alander, "and a lot of training to get everyone up to speed."
  3. Dealing with multiple complexities. No large-scale implementation is free of challenges and LSCS' virtualization project was no exception to the rule. "This was a complete infrastructure replacement and the design and architecture of a new system," said Alander. "We knew we'd be dealing with a lot of complexities." He credited frequent communication among team members as they "plowed through network and storage upgrades, added blade servers, and built a whole new data center" with helping LSCS achieve its project goals. "Throughout the entire process we all communicated regularly and kept everyone totally engaged," said Alander. "Between that and the regular training, we were able to exceed our goals."

Alander said LSCS kicked off the project by designing a virtualized architecture for all of the college's Tier 1 applications. All current applications were redesigned with the goal of being able to deliver IT infrastructure as a service and to eradicate the system lags and delays that users were experiencing. Working on an 18-month project timeline, LSCS also implemented a new Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system and established a policy requiring all new servers coming online to be virtualized.

"In order to shrink the physical environment to the point where we would only be running virtually," said Alander, "we knew we had to support and stand behind the virtualization effort 100 percent." That directive was passed all the way up to LSCS' board of trustees, which was kept informed of the school's progress in meeting its goal of having 95 percent of its IT infrastructure virtualized. "Last year we hit 97 percent," said Alander. "If we can find a way to reach 100 percent, we'll do it."

The college's active directory structure was improved, availability of services across all application tiers is high, and a total of 400 physical servers were replaced within a two-month timeframe. "We migrated to a virtual environment and decommissioned the old hardware and got it out of our way in no time at all," said Alander. "In the end we achieved a $600,000 capital expenditure [capex] savings based on what it would have taken to replace that equipment in the physical world."

LSCS has also reduced new service deployment time from three to four weeks to only a few hours, lowered its power and cooling costs, and realized its expected return on investment (ROI) in about three years. Now LSCS has its eye on desktop virtualization. Having already completed a small-scale, 5,000-student pilot project in that realm, the school is now working with software engineers to figure out the best way to construct a dynamic, virtual desktop environment across its 14 campuses.

"We want to be able to dynamically create a desktop on the fly," said Alander, who sees the new venture as a long-term objective for LSCS. "It will probably be two or three years before this new initiative is fully operational and available to all of our students and faculty."

About the Author

Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at bridgetmc@earthlink.net.

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