Achieving Virtualization for Fun and Profit
The way Andrew Lee tells it, it was "stupid simple": Students and staff at Keiser University, where Lee is associate vice chancellor of Management Information Systems, went away for the weekend, and when they came back, everything they did on the computer was faster. Where it used to take 20 minutes for teachers to pull information like attendance and final grade postings, now it took about four minutes. The entire "back end" of the central computer system had been changed without the end users knowing it.
Keiser had gone virtual.
Virtualization is a relatively new way of economizing data centers. The result is less energy spent by both human and machine. As Stephen Shankland of CNETNews.com explains it:
"The term virtualization means that software is running on some sort of virtual foundation rather than the physical hardware it typically expects. Instead of a single operating system controlling a computer's hardware, the virtualization software controls it, providing multiple compartments called virtual machines for the operating systems to run in."
Keiser University is spread over 26 locations in Florida, with about 12,000 students, 3,100 of them online. Early in 2008, it was running out of rack space to keep up with demand. Lee thought he'd have to add a sequel server and increase his application servers from five to 20. "You do the math," he says, "and add it all up, and you're using an entire cage in the data center."
So Lee and his colleagues decided to virtualize. They called up CDW-G, which hooked them up with both EMC and IBM. According to Lee, "We said, this is what we want to do. What do we need to do to get there?" After about two weeks of discussions about performance requirements and budgets, everything was in place. "Everything went so smoothly and so easily," says Lee. "Performance has increased substantially for end users. When one machine needs a little bit more, it gets it. I can set up seven new servers and never have to leave my office. We're saving a lot of money." Lee's goal over the next few years is to move everything in a virtual environment; right now they're at about 30%.
Chicago's DePaul University is twice as big as Keiser. Joe Salwich is its associate vice president of Information Technology; he's been at the university for 20 years. Currently, they have 400 servers; last year they started looking into virtualization.
The staff originally wanted to buy "chiller units," which would have cost $100,000. "They were so intent to buy the cooling," Salwach says, "that no one wanted to change the way we did business." His challenge--ultimately successful--was to get his staff to put on "a different set of glasses."
Salwach's main strategy was to talk to faculty about getting service, not a server. He says that their motivation is "I just want to get my job done." Now they can get their jobs done a lot quicker. Not only that, but he's getting staff as well as students to buy into the "green" concept. A computer lab this year, he points out, uses far less power than one from two years ago.
Salwach doesn't see virtualizing as a reduction of costs as much as a shift in costs--from hardware to software management. "The big savings," he says, "is in the way you manage these servers." Now he can run eight virtualized programs in one box instead of eight boxes running at 15% utilization.
Judd Knott, assistant vice chancellor for IT Infrastructure and Operations at the University of North Carolina, recently oversaw the building of a new data center on campus. IBM had done a virtualization study for them a few years ago. "We were paying through the nose for maintenance; we were looking for solutions to get rid of the junk as quickly as we could. . . . Virtualization makes a lot of sense." Now they have several hundred servers in virtual space. Services have improved. Perhaps surprisingly, it was vendors who needed the most persuading. "There was early resistance," says Knott. "They'd say, 'Maybe you can run it in a virtual environment, but we're not going to support it.'"
Times have changed, of course. But Knott says that he's still "trying to mold the vendors in their understanding that this is what we need to manage data centers. We need to step away from the old protocols of building management systems."
Keiser University's Andrew Lee offers a personal perspective of achieving virtualization. After people started using the new system, "A lot of Emails went out saying, 'Wow, what have you done?' and 'Thank you.' It's nice to get the 'attaboys' every once in a while."
And does he ever wish he'd done it earlier?
"All the time."
Joe Salwach, DePaul University
"The big savings is in the way you manage these servers."
Judson Knott, University of North Carolina
"We were looking for solutions to get rid of the junk as quickly as we could."
CDW-G Virtualization Podcast: Coming Soon.