Bryan Skowera says integrating virtualization into its storage management plan brought major savings to Fairfield University: “By virtualizing 10 physical servers that were end of life and required immediate replacement, we broke even. We are now at 45-plus virtual guests, meaning that the initial investment in VMware has saved us triple the software costs."
Nov 09 2010

Where Virtualization Meets Storage

Combining server virtualization, a SAN and thin provisioning, Fairfield University decreased its physical storage needs by one-third.

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When multiple academic departments are intent on launching applications on custom-configured servers that are of little use to any other department, managing storage on all those servers can get a little tricky.

That was the situation at Fairfield University in Connecticut, where Bryan Skowera, the college's network manager, says combining server virtualization with a storage area network helped the university manage data more efficiently in two ways.

First, Skowera says Fairfield broke its “rack-and-buy” cycle, which significantly streamlined the number of servers Fairfield needed. And second, it slashed the university's actual storage requirements.  

Skowera says a site assessment revealed that before implementing virtualization, Fairfield's physical servers contained a total of 13 terabytes of data spread across a variety of physical devices. But the university's servers were using only 4 terabytes of data.

“We had no ability to consolidate the 9 terabytes of unused storage since that free space represented individual, locally installed hard drives across our entire environment,” Skowera explains.  

To address the discrepancy, Fairfield installed a NetApp SAN, updated existing HP ProLiant DL380 servers, plotted out a new physical network topography, then earmarked the servers with expiring warranties to be virtualized first. “Out of 65 servers, we have moved 45 into VMware hosts to date,” he says.

VMware's thin provisioning helped decrease the environment's physical storage needs by about one-third, Skowera says, adding that professors and students requisitioning servers see no difference in performance.

Virtualization also had some major financial benefits, says Skowera.  Because the university was due to replace its existing SAN regardless of virtualization and used existing HP ProLiant servers, the licensing and support costs of VMware was truly the only upfront cost for this project, Skowera explains. 

“Before introducing VMware, purchasing a new physical server had an average cost of $2,500,” he says. “By virtualizing 10 physical servers that were end of life and required immediate replacement, we broke even.  We are now at 45-plus virtual guests, meaning that the initial investment in VMware has saved us triple the software costs."

Big Challenges

Server virtualization brings big challenges in capacity management, automatic resource allocation and overall storage management, says Albert Lee, senior analyst at Enterprise Management Associates. Given these impacts, “storage management planning must be part of any server virtualization strategy,” he says.

The percentage of IT managers surveyed who say their organization will increase spending on storage hardware in 2010 compared to 2009

Source: Enterprise Strategy Group, based on survey of 286 IT managers

Eric Spangler, interim vice president for information technology and CIO at the University of Maryland University College, says that supporting 94,000 students – many of them taking UMUC distance-learning classes from all over the world – pushed the college to reconsider its larger storage management strategy.

In 2007, UMUC decided that any new IT projects would be built around virtualization. “We wanted to build out additional capacity using the framework we already have for VMware, not endlessly rebuild the wheel,” Spangler adds.

Fairfield's Skowera says that the university's next project is to take over the computing needs of the school's engineering department – hardly a small task because of the software firepower and attendant server support needed.

But with a tested storage management plan, Skowera is confident the project will succeed.

The Right Fit

As you develop your storage management strategy, realize that not every application is a suitable candidate for a virtual server deployment.

Certain apps – such as relational databases requiring heavy CPU power – might not lend themselves to virtualization, says Eric Spangler, acting CIO and vice president at the University of Maryland University College.

Spangler's team tried virtualizing a relational database, and the system simply didn't perform as well in a virtual solution as it did on a traditional hardware platform.

Ideally, server virtualization is a gradual, selective process.

When it comes to virtualizing certain legacy applications, plenty of IT managers would agree that if an app is critical to operations and running fine, then it should be left alone.

Albert Lee, senior analyst at Enterprise Management Associates, says a hybrid environment supporting apps running on physical and virtual servers is often the best choice.

Amy Etra