Oct 31 2006

Virtually Perfect

New twists on server virtualization are helping campuses maximize their IT resources.

Colleges are embracing server virtualization, which is enabling them to maximize their IT resources.

The virtualization of servers offers cost savings and increased efficiency. Although virtualization can solve many management and resource challenges, IT experts recommend taking different approaches, depending on a campus’s project needs, hardware makeup and appetite for experimentation. While not the answer to all server challenges, virtualization makes problems such as potential security breaches easy to remedy, according to many IT professionals.

The term “virtualization” refers to the management, provisioning and use of server features and functions on logical rather than physical grounds. Virtualization’s many forms are also a factor in determining what strategy to take.

The concept of virtualization is not new. For decades, virtualization has been done on mainframes. Using software, the mainframe is split into two or more segments, with each segment being apportioned to a different user.

Increasingly, campuses are implementing another variation on virtualization, in which a single application or process is distributed across many machines in grid computing arrays. Another popular approach is to mimic the mainframe scheme with multiple server instances running on a single hardware box. However, instead of large, expensive mainframes, the hardware box in question is an inexpensive, commoditized machine.

Projects Big and Small

For example, Southwestern Community College in Creston, Iowa, uses Microsoft Virtual Server 2005 running on Hewlett-Packard servers to give computer science students hands-on experience with creating server setups.

On the mega level, the Lexington, Ky.-based University of Kentucky’s Center for Computational Sciences has used the HP-UX 11i operating system to provide a virtual communication and collaboration environment on a cluster of HP Superdome servers, where the researchers can access computing power that can pump out 670 billion calculations per second.

Big or small, virtualization projects are aimed at creating efficiencies in an era of tight budgets.

The University of Missouri-Columbia (UMC) has been using virtualization technology from VMWare, a division of EMC, for about two years. It began with the smaller version of its virtualization software, GSX Server, which is marketed for workgroups. GSX got its start in the development group within UMC’s IT division, replacing real machines with virtual ones, notes Bryan Roesslet, IT manager at UMC.

But hardware costs weren’t the key reason to move from that contained tryout to a larger rollout of ESX Server, the enterprise version of the software. Instead, it was the desire for more efficient use of that hardware. The UMC campus is standardized on powerful commodity servers with dual central processing units (CPUs), redundant power and dual boot drives.

“We pay very little for those machines, and they’re stable and fast,” Roesslet says. But even at a low cost, he adds, “Many of those servers sit at 3 percent to 5 percent CPU utilization, and that tells you that you’re managing so many machines you probably don’t need to manage.”

Creating an Efficiency Engine

The University of Florida-Gainesville is looking to server virtualization to help it reorganize and streamline its IT structure. In particular, it will be aiming to make its distributed storage assets more manageable through virtualization, which will also aid its disaster recovery and universal backup efforts, says Marc Hoit, interim associate provost for IT at UF.

In addition, the effort will help the Florida university with its equipment purchase cycles. Most of the high-level hardware at UF is on a four- or five-year replacement schedule. The virtualization software UF is considering will be able to work with the disparate equipment on campus “that probably will be with us until we end up with a more unified environment,” Hoit says.

Marist College, in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and Metropolitan Community College (MCC), in Omaha, Neb., have both put versatile hardware to use hosting hundreds of students, each needing his or her own server software environment.

Marist has 600 virtual servers running on one IBM z900 server. The 600 servers are used by computer science students to create and manage Internet applications. This approach also provides a way for the students to experiment with a system without causing lasting damage.

That’s an opportunity Marist couldn’t afford to offer those students if it were not for the virtualization technology. Only one person is needed to maintain those students’ servers, and it doesn’t even take all of that individual’s time.

“I can’t even imagine how many staff [members] I’d have to have to do 600 real servers,” says Harry Williams, Marist’s director of technology.

If the Marist students hack around with their servers and break something, “we can restore them to a known point very quickly,” Williams says. Software upgrades and security patches can also be run very quickly because they need to be installed in only one place.

MCC is also able to offer its students opportunities by loading multiple servers on one physical box — in this case, an IBM iSeries 520 server running five different operating systems and serving up to 1,500 students, according to Ted Tucker, head instructor of the iSeries group at MCC.

The college has also expanded its offerings to include classes in the AIX operating system — something it couldn’t do before it learned that it could run AIX on the 520.

With virtualization, security can be an increased problem from the possibility of a hacker being able to disrupt many applications by attacking one box. But Williams says that such attacks are actually harder than they seem, and recovery is easier because “the master [original program] for all of the virtual servers is not really on the network, so it’s not available for them to hack into.”

“And,” Williams adds, “even if it were [available], it’s very easy to restore that process and rebuild them.”

Payback With Virtual Servers

There are several ways server virtualization will improve your organization’s bottom line, says Bryan Roesslet, IT manager at the University of Missouri-Columbia (UMC), but he downplays the idea of a return-on-investment analysis. “What does an hour of downtime cost to an institution?” he asks. “That’s hard to calculate, so we don’t really [do that].” Roesslet and others discuss a number of areas of actual and potential payback.

People: “Higher education’s real money in IT is spent on the people,” says Roesslet, who adds that at this point in his school’s adoption of the technology, he doesn’t see a way that server virtualization will result in him needing fewer full-time employees to perform all his department’s work.

Others disagree. Ted Tucker, head instructor of the iSeries group at Metropolitan Community College (MCC) in Omaha, Neb., says that he and one other employee are able to maintain a single server that supports 900 to 1,500 students each quarter.

Management: A virtual setup is easier to manage. Applications running on virtual servers need help just as if they were running on “real” servers, and there are still hardware boxes to look after, even if there are fewer of them. But many experts note that much time will be saved in patch and program updates, and replacing one server setup with a new one can be done relatively quickly.

Hardware: Here’s where the main savings are. Of course, the savings are magnified at larger organizations. Virtualization allows institutions to buy a limited number of systems and reduce burdens such as hardware and power expenses but still get the same amount of work done, says Chris Ratcliffe, director of Solaris marketing for Sun Microsystems.

UMC and Southwestern Community College in Creston, Iowa, estimate virtualization can cut server hardware costs by 50 percent. The reason is simple: Fewer boxes are needed, and even if they are inexpensive boxes — like the servers UMC uses — a lot of small savings will add up to big savings on a campuswide scale.

MCC leases its server hardware “for about the price of a new PC each month,” giving it great capabilities with very little expenditure, according to Tucker.

Best Practices for Virtualization

Here are some experts’ tips on implementing virtualization:

“Take on virtualizing those nodes where there’s less risk,” says Bryan Roesslet, IT manager at the University of Missouri-Columbia. When his team began to implement virtualization outside its development group, it targeted functions at infrastructure nodes on its network, such as domain controllers, time synchronization, Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol, and the Radius and Kerberos authentication protocols.

It would be harder to estimate how a campus department would behave because, Roesslet says, “they may roll out a new Web site and start streaming video or something. But we know how those infrastructure machines behave.”

Make your virtual servers complement one another. Four real servers “that are running flat out” at 100 percent utilization can’t be expected to run the same way if put onto one real server, says Harry Williams, director of technology at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N. Y. They’ll need the same amount of horsepower to run them in either configuration.

Colleges and universities need to match up the “peaks and valleys” of different uses to complement each other, Williams adds.

One size doesn’t fit all. Virtualization technology choices should be driven by “what your operational structure is and what you are trying to achieve,” advises Marc Hoit, interim associate provost for IT at the University of Florida-Gainesville. Different technology will be needed when running a small cluster of servers at a departmental level than when running a campuswide effort. “Tailor it to your specific needs,” Hoit recommends.

Get buy-in. Virtualization that is designed to create new student learning opportunities or to change administrative operations requires political skills from IT leaders. When Metropolitan Community College in Omaha, Neb., began preparations to take advantage of multiple uses for its servers, it met with people from all the affected departments, according to Ted Tucker, head instructor of the iSeries Group at MCC.

As a result, MCC received buy-in from everyone involved, and no one worried that one department was trying to steal customers — the students — from them.

John Burton is a freelance technology writer based in San Francisco.