Jarrod Car, Saint Louis University’s SAN and data center manager, says consolidation and virtualization have saved the university money and space.
Mar 13 2009

Consolidation Benefits Add Up

Saint Louis University's recent data center consolidation utilizes new blade and virtualization technologies to achieve greater efficiencies.

Without question, Missouri’s Saint Louis University boasts some impressive numbers. The institution is ranked among the top five Jesuit universities in the country, and considered one of the nation's best values in higher education by Consumers Digest.

The Princeton Review’s “The Best 368 Colleges” 2009 guidebook designated SLU as one of the top U.S. schools for undergraduate education, while its health law program was ranked No.1 for the fifth consecutive year in U.S. News & World Report’s “America’s Best Graduate Schools” 2009 issue.

With some 12,700 students supported by nearly 8,000 staff and faculty members, the university has provided education, leadership and service for 190 years.

But when it came to burgeoning storage and server requirements, SLU’s numbers were spiraling out of control — most notably from 235 power-hungry servers consuming ever-shrinking space on the floors of the campus’ three data centers.

Solving Server Sprawl

“SLU's data centers were nearing capacity,” acknowledges Jarrod Car, the university’s server storage area network (SAN) and data center manager. “We were implementing a server for every solution and application needed, which was costing us in hardware, space, cooling and electrical.”

The university found relief through a comprehensive data center consolidation initiative that paired HP c7000 series blade chassis and HP BL460 servers with VMware ESX virtualization software. As a result, SLU is not only ideally positioned to meet the current and future needs of students and staff, but the university is also touting a whole new set of positive numbers.

After all figures have been tallied, the consolidation project will reduce SLU’s server count from 235 to just 30. The virtualization effort will slash the data centers’ associated power and cooling consumption by more than 85 percent, while also yielding a space savings of 85 percent, according to an analysis calculated for the university by VMware.

Once the data center consolidation is finished, SLU is poised to cash in on a substantial return on investment (ROI), with a projected direct savings of more than $4 million, coupled with indirect savings of nearly $1.7 million over a three-year period. Based on its initial investment, the university is projected to achieve a whopping ROI of 1,449 percent – with a payback realized in just three months.

Through virtualization, the university has discovered that less is significantly more. Indeed, SLU has gained more server capacity in less space; more processing ability with less power, cooling and hardware costs; and more efficiency from less staff.

One Server, Many Savings

“Cost containment (was) a significant concern for us, which is reflected in the expected reduction in costs for power consumption, physical space, and heating and air-conditioning,” Car reveals. “We have also leveraged this opportunity to address our ITS goal to ‘raise the bar,’ by improving the performance and reliability of critical systems with this virtual solution.”

Yielding dramatic cost savings through consolidation of physical resources, lower operational expenses, and reductions in power and cooling requirements, server virtualization offers a magnitude of benefits. By sharing the resources of a single server across multiple environments, the process essentially allows one server do the job of multiple devices.

Virtual servers can host multiple operating systems and applications locally and in remote locations — eliminating physical and geographical barriers — and also help facilitate high availability of resources, increased security and improved disaster recovery processes.

SLU is one of a growing number of organizations taking advantage of virtualization’s broad spectrum of benefits. Andreas Antonopoulos, senior vice president and founding partner of Nemertes Research, reveals that virtualization adoption rates reached as high as 93 percent in studies the firm conducted during the second half of 2008.

Noting that especially strong adoption rates occurred at the end of 2005, Antonopoulos says the explosion was primarily driven by power, cooling and capacity issues, as well as hardware cost savings.

More recently, industry experts have noticed a shift in adoption factors for virtualization. “What have now become the strongest drivers are agility, flexibility and disaster recovery initiatives,” Antonopoulos reports. “Many [organizations] have completed the first wave of virtualization and we’re seeing a second wave now.”

By consolidating servers, an organization can increase the utilization of its existing hardware from 10 percent to 80 percent, while reducing hardware requirements by a 10:1 ratio or better, according to research from VMware. While SLU’s target consolidation ratio averaged an impressive 7.8 to 1, Antonopoulos says that he has seen organizations reach ratios as high as 30 to 1.

“Virtualization is a sign of out times,” he explains. “It’s a direct response to the surge of departmental computing and the IT bubble of the late 90s, with the sprawl of single-server applications.”

Blade Consolidation

For SLU, the enhancement was achieved with the deployment of four HP BladeSystem c7000 enclosures, which consolidate server, storage, network, power and management capabilities into one box. Providing all the power, cooling and I/O infrastructure needed to support modular server, interconnect and storage components, the 10U enclosure holds up to 16 server and/or storage blades, plus optional redundant network and storage interconnect modules.

Power is delivered through a pooled-power backplane that ensures the power supplies’ full capacity is available to all server blades for maximum flexibility and redundancy.

SLU also purchased more than 60 HP ProLiant BL460c blades, which provide exceptional performance and expandability, industry-leading management tools and the latest technologies for dense computing environments.

Then, to facilitate its virtualization efforts, the university selected VMware ESX, which abstracts server processor, memory, storage and networking resources into multiple virtual machines.

At the same time, SLU is migrating from an older SAN that offered just six terabytes of capacity to two HP StorageWorks XP24000 Disk Arrays capable of storing up to 256 terabytes. Supplementing storage requirements and allowing for replication, the XP24000 delivers full-proof storage for organizations that require constant access to vital data, while allowing continued operations in the event of a disaster.

Designed for high availability, the XP24000 combines a fully redundant hardware platform with unique data replication capabilities, which are integrated with clustering solutions for complete continuity of operations.

Finally, the university revamped its switching architecture with Brocade director-class switches. Designed to meet the performance, availability, scalability and energy efficiency requirements of organizations managing a SAN, the switches help optimize storage networking resources to meet the most demanding requirements — ensuring high resource utilization, simplified management and unmatched fabric scalability.

Pooling Resources

Once its data center consolidation is complete, SLU will be reaping rewards across the board.

First and foremost, the university has migrated from an underutilized, over-provisioned physical environment to a virtual setting with fewer, more reliable machines. Research has found that while small servers often average 20 percent or less in terms of utilization, virtualization makes it possible to achieve significantly higher rates by pooling common infrastructure resources.

“This is a huge step forward to help realize efficiencies for faculty and staff trying to accomplish the same goal,” notes Car. “In the past we would facilitate a server per request, which was very inefficient.”

As a result, tremendous savings in hardware costs can be attained – more than $3,000 per year for every server workload virtualized, and an overall reduction of as much as 50 percent in combined hardware and operating costs, according to VMware findings.

“Suddenly you don’t need to buy $500,000 of servers to refresh this year,” Antonopoulos points out. “And that’s going to give you a very big, very sudden ROI.”

Virtualization also contributes to SLU’s objective of achieving equipment longevity.

“The effort is among our first steps of the department's goal of ‘built to last,’ which is intended to provide long-term flexibility for the deployment of equipment,” explains Jody Howard, SLU server architect. “By implementing the virtual solution, we are avoiding being tied to aging hardware and the associated support contracts.”

Virtualization is preserving valuable space in SLU’s data centers. In the past, an organization’s expansion typically necessitated an increase in the number of stand-alone servers, storage devices and applications. Such a hardware explosion not only results in enormous inefficiency and expense, but also occupies significant real estate on the data center floor.

“Gaining data center space is our biggest benefit, as it is at a premium,” confirms Tim Rooney, the university’s server analyst. “Virtualization has allowed us to bring down the footprint of the physical servers and diminish the power related to that.”

“The overall footprint for equipment will definitely be less,” adds Car. “Being able to utilize the blade chassis, coupled with VMware, has allowed us to lower our overall footprint while still keeping the servers highly manageable. We are benefiting from the creation of space, lower cooling costs and electrical savings.”

Not surprising, consolidating the number of hardware devices required to run the same number of applications can lead to appreciably lower power and cooling requirements, with virtualization yielding reduction rates as high as 50 percent, according to Antonopoulos.

A Virtual Shade of Green

Today’s rising electricity costs, shrinking power supplies and mounting social and economic pressure to go green are prompting organizations of all shapes and sizes to rethink their IT strategies. Like SLU, many are discovering that server virtualization holds the keys to effectively meet these challenges.

Recent research from the Enterprise Strategy Group (ESG) found that organizations resoundingly believe server virtualization will have the single greatest impact on reducing power consumption in the data center – twice that of developing more energy-efficient physical server technologies.

Server virtualization is also creating tremendous savings for SLU when it comes to simplifying the deployment and ongoing maintenance of equipment, freeing up staffing resources and allowing IT personnel to focus their energies elsewhere.

By offering a new way of managing IT infrastructure, virtualization can help administrators spend less time on repetitive tasks such as provisioning, configuration, monitoring and maintenance.

VMware found that virtualization reduces the amount of time it takes to provision new servers by up to 70 percent. Even more, IT personnel have the ability to generate templates that enable the rapid deployment of applications.

“It will allow for more timely and cost-effective provisioning of servers, as well as limiting single points of failure,” confirms Rooney. “And it also allows us to provide scalability in servers, since we can easily grant or revoke hardware as long as the cluster has it available.”

Mark Battrell / Battrell Photography