Franklin University’s RICHARD CALDWELL moved to virtual servers to stem the wave of new applications and a growing student population.
Oct 08 2008

Many Favorable Returns

Virtual machines improve operations, and lower power requirements and costs.

Over the past few years, a perfect storm of increasing enrollment and enhanced data services threatened to erode technology processes at Franklin University. As the number of students grew, the Columbus, Ohio, school turned out new applications faster than ever before.

At the same time, in order to improve service to faculty and students, the school’s technology team began focusing more on lifecycle management and quality assurance, which made application rollout more complicated and time consuming.

Accomplishing all this on the one server/one application paradigm wasn’t working well, says Richard Caldwell, senior virtualization administrator for the school’s Technology Infrastructure and Network Services Group.

He points to the work and expense of buying servers and configuring them for a development and testing environment; the work required to move applications to new servers; and the often inevitable disruption of services that accompanies maintenance jobs. “It was a very inefficient and ineffective process,” he says.

So last year, to improve its operations and get more from its servers, Franklin, like a growing number of universities and colleges, turned to virtualization software. Using VMware, it moved applications from individual physical servers onto virtual machines. The school is implementing the new model cautiously. The rollout continues this fall, but initial signs are good, says Caldwell.

Server and desktop virtualization products, such as those from VMware, Oracle, IBM and Sun Microsystems, cut IT expenses and support by allowing one large physical server to be partitioned into multiple virtual servers or multiple virtual desktops. With either servers or desktops, virtualization allows for better resource utilization because schools can allocate the exact amount of server resources that each application or user needs. Because most physical servers and PCs are severely underutilized, virtualization provides for more efficient use of resources.

“Organizations are utilizing virtualization as an opportunity to rearchitect their data centers and re-evaluate purchasing decisions and IT processes, with the goal of transforming the current state of infrastructure into a dynamic data center that can easily accommodate business change,” says Mark Bowker, analyst with the Enterprise Strategy Group.

Thirty of Franklin University’s 70 virtual machines replaced physical servers, says Caldwell. The remaining 40 virtual machines were created for new projects, saving the school from having to buy new hardware, according to Caldwell. The school now has 10 HP ProLiant DL380 G5 servers hosting virtual servers: five in the campus data center and five in a remote data center. Based on the school’s current utilization, Caldwell expects to be able to host more than 150 virtual machines on his current stock of hardware.

Fight the Power

Franklin University had more than 150 physical servers before it rolled out virtual machines.

All schools that implement virtualization do so in order to optimize processes in equipment. They also find that virtualization lowers power consumption and allows easier and less costly access to applications over wide area networks.

In 2003, Indiana University’s technology staff looked for a way to deploy servers more quickly, says Jared Beard, associate director of information technology labs and studios at IU’s Kelley School of Business in Bloomington. After installing virtual servers, his department found it could create a new server in about 15 minutes and subsequently reduced the number of physical servers it supported from 19 to two.

Along with that, says Beard, came a welcome accompaniment: lower power consumption. With virtual servers, he says, power requirements dropped from 90 amps to 15 amps.

While power reduction is often the icing on the virtualization cake, it is an important added benefit to some schools considering the technology. “Reducing power requirements wasn’t our primary reason for implementing virtual servers, but it was helpful in getting support for the project,” says Beard.

At the same time, people noticed reduced noise level in the labs where the servers had been housed. “With so many power supplies and [computers], all of which had fans, the noise level had been very bad,” Beard says. With the reduction in the number of physical servers, “the noise from the fans is not at all distracting,” he adds.

Virtualization provides many benefits in addition to power conservation, but to get the most out of this server model, schools must find ways to keep it running at peak performance. That means buying the right tools and hardware and creating the right configurations.

Optimize to Maximize

IT managers at universities and colleges say server optimization requires allocating resources from the physical server based on the application manufacturer’s specifications, but there is some leeway. If a manufacturer underestimates the amount of resources needed to run an application, for instance, experts say resource allocation on virtual machines can be done on the fly. “In the past, if we needed, say, more memory, we would have had to order it, wait a week, install it, and test it to see its effect on the performance of the application. Now that can happen in minutes,” Franklin’s Caldwell says.

James Maloney Jr., network operations manager for the Facilities Management Department at the University of Maryland in College Park, also plans to allocate resources as needed. His school is using a virtual desktop model over a WAN. He says his department will be scaling up from 50 to 250 users over the next year or so. He estimates that his current infrastructure of four Sun Fire X4100 and two Sun Fire X4600 servers will support 110 users.

Maloney also expects to add 64 AutoCAD users. AutoCAD is a notoriously data-intensive application, so Maloney plans to watch the network carefully. “I’m on it every day. I will see performance degradation immediately when it occurs, and I’ll add whatever capacity I need as I go,” he says.

Caldwell agrees that optimizing processes is not a one-time event, and resource allocation will change constantly. To maintain an optimal system, he plans to install tools that monitor server utilization, as well as tools that maintain data on who has requested server resources and when they expect their need to end. He says that people are not always mindful of reporting server resources they no longer use. While that has often been the case with physical servers, with virtualization, the ease of creating a virtual machine leads some users to feel that it is not as important to turn in their servers when they’re finished with them. The tools should help Caldwell ferret out such problems.

Virtual machines can span different types of servers, but Caldwell says keeping them optimized is much easier if organizations standardize on one type of physical server. Each server has its own idiosyncrasies, and troubleshooting several different physical machines adds an unnecessary burden, he believes.

Future Plans

Now that Caldwell has a taste for virtualization, he plans to apply it to his desktops. He says there are hundreds of employees who have PCs that sit idle most of the day. Virtual desktops will allow him to provide each with an optimal amount of resources. “Based on the efficiencies we’re already getting from sharing server resources, I don’t see why we shouldn’t aim for the same efficiencies on the desktop as well,” Caldwell says.

Doing the Math

Richard Caldwell, Franklin University’s senior virtualization administrator at the school’s Technology Infrastructure and Network Services Group, calculates the cost of a virtual machine by multiplying the total cost of the physical server it’s running on by the percentage of the server’s total resources that the virtual machine uses. So if a physical server costs, say, $5,000, and a virtual machine running on that server uses 5 percent of the server’s resources, Caldwell calculates the cost of the virtual machine at $250. He then compares that with the cost of the physical server he would have had to purchase for the same application. Using that calculation, he estimates that a virtual server provides savings of 25 to 75 percent. That doesn’t include savings on network connections, cooling and power costs, and ongoing maintenance expenses, all of which will be considered when he completes an extensive ROI calculation early next year.

Indiana University figures part of its ROI will be based on reduced power consumption, says Jared Beard, associate director of information technology labs and studios at IU’s Kelley School of Business. Beard doesn’t yet have a baseline for determining how much power he is saving. This is partly because he was going to have to replace some servers anyway, and he doesn’t know the power they would have required.

Also, the school pays a fixed price for a fixed amount of power. There will be no actual reduction in the amount of power going to the school, but the fixed-power model has prevented the school from cooling some rooms. So with the data center using less power, more will be available for cooling.

Looking to the future, Beard says most people at IU expect that at some point individual schools will be charged for the power they use. “So anything we can do to reduce power consumption is considered a benefit when we sell the idea of virtualization to our users,” Beard says.

James Maloney Jr., network operations manager for the Facilities Management Department at the University of Maryland, says his school has been saving about one-fifth of the cost of traditional desktops when using VMware Virtual Desktop Infrastructure instead of handing out individual PCs. “Our budget wasn’t growing, but the requirement for PCs was. We had to find a way to answer that challenge,” he says.