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At Your Virtual Service

Thinking about buying new servers? It may be time to go virtual.

At Your Virtual Service

VIRTUALIZATION tamed Bryant U's server chaos-and saved significant bucks.

FOR YEARS, ‘CROWDED' was the best word to use to describe the state of the server infrastructure at Bryant University (RI).

As recently as 2004, the school had 84 physical servers spread across campus. Some of these units were in server rooms, tucked snugly into server racks. Others were standalone units next to other big machines. A handful of them were barebones personal computers, whirring in the back of a department office. According to Art Gloster, vice president for information services, the school had so many servers, it didn't even know how many there were.

Naturally, when the Board of Trustees started pushing for Gloster to centralize IT, he knew he had to make a change. After auditing the network to see how many servers were out there, Gloster opted to consolidate. With a bankroll of $1 million (and various flavors of hardware and software), he got all of the servers onto five machines.

"To say that we eliminated redundancy would be an understatement," he asserts, noting that the school's consolidation ratio was roughly 15 to 1. "Technically, we still have 84 servers, only now they're all sitting on five machines."

What Is ‘Virtualization'?

This process is known as virtualization, and schools across the country are using it more and more to consolidate resources and improve efficiencies across the board. The benefits of this approach are undeniable: Fewer resources means lower overhead and, ultimately, reduced costs.

The notion of server virtualization is nothing new: In the days of mainframe computers, technologists termed it "partitioning." Back then, one machine might house five or six virtual servers. Today, because physical servers are smaller and boast exponentially more computing power, it's easy to fit dozens of virtual servers on one machine.

Technically speaking, virtualized servers mask certain resources from particular users. IT administrators use a software application to divide one physical server into multiple isolated operating systems and environments. The administrators then program the software to grant certain access levels to predetermined users, in the OS of their choice.

"Having every server in the same spot has made managing and monitoring them incredibly easy. In many ways, we've standardized on a platform of virtualization." —Rich Sedman, Bryant University

At Bryant, the clearance process is handled when users first log on to the network, meaning that the virtualized environment is transparent from the user's perspective. Gloster says this approach is by design, to make the infrastructure as seamless as humanly possible.

"Unless our users know we're using virtualized servers, they have no way of detecting it," Gloster says. "They log in like they always have, but behind the scenes, the entire network is a lot better for everyone involved."

The Road to Virtualization

Bryant's virtualized environment didn't happen overnight, however. Once the Board of Trustees gave Gloster the go-ahead to centralize the environment, he conducted an audit to find out how many servers were on the network. He called upon Rich Sedman, director of computer and telecom services, to help him tackle this step. The findings were surprising: 84 servers in all.

With this number in hand, Gloster and Sedman dispatched colleagues to get a sense of how departments were using these servers, and how many of them could be consolidated onto single machines. The teams discovered that in some cases, servers were competing with each other for resources. In these cases, the school eliminated duplicates.

Next, the university invested in five blade servers from IBM, and virtualization software from VMware. Sedman and his team took a few months to complete the conversion, copying existing servers onto the IBM machines and separating them with the help of VMware. The school stored the machines in a brand-new data center.

Benefits and ROI

"Having every server in the same spot has made managing and monitoring them incredibly easy," says Sedman. "In many ways, we've standardized on a platform of virtualization."

The move has had a number of unintended consequences, though. First, the switch has enabled the school to put in a new disaster recovery system that revolves around standby copies of each server. When IT officials need to take down a server for maintenance, they simply switch over to the standby copy, then switch back when they're done.

Of course, another benefit has been improved security. Because every user must be pre-qualified to access each virtual server, there are no questions about who has access where. Furthermore, the VMware software enables Gloster and Sedman to customize the operating system for each particular application.

Overall, Gloster estimates Bryant has saved about $35,000 over the past few years, as the school was able to eliminate physical maintenance, consolidate storage, and reduce software licensing fees associated with individual server management. He adds that fewer machines also use less energy, which should be a big savings with energy costs going up. Perhaps the only challenge to Bryant's virtualization program is its success. The strategy has worked so well that the school has since adopted a server containment policy that stipulates all new servers must be virtualized. What's more, because the servers are so easy to set up, everybody on campus wants one.

Sedman says departments request at least a dozen servers a year, and that as long as department heads can prove the necessity of the server, they get what they want. "We haven't rejected anybody, but we require people to answer some questions about what they want and why," he adds. "Virtual servers are great, but we still want our users to justify their needs. Just because you can fit any number of servers on a box doesn't mean you should."

Network file management can help your institution better manage data resources campuswide. The rise of virtual machines may tilt the OS dynamic. 2007 Campus Technology Innovator: Rice University foregoes traditional switched networking for a highcapacity, advanced virtualized network. Solution Center: Networking and Infrastructure for the Campus Enterprise. White Paper: Virtualization in Education.

-Matt Villano, senior contributing editor of this publication, is based in Healdsburg, CA.

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