After positive initial experiences, Andy Farrior says Victoria College’s IT team will consider virtualizing anything.

Aug 11 2015

How to Assess Higher Ed Virtualization Needs

Colleges virtualize infrastructure to maximize computing power and minimize power and cooling costs.

By late 2009, the IT staff at Victoria College in Victoria, Texas, had decided they wanted to start seeing the benefits of virtualization already enjoyed by other institutions.

“We had been researching the technology and saw a lot of other colleges going to virtualization with good results,” says Andy Farrior, technology services director at the two-year college, which serves about 4,000 students a semester. “Because it’s a pretty straightforward process, we began by virtualizing our servers.”

After trying several virtual solutions, the college selected VMware and used the software with legacy servers and an existing SAN solution. By late 2013, the Victoria IT staff began researching replacement technology for its server and storage infrastructure and decided on Cisco Unified Computing System (UCS) and Nimble Storage supporting a VMware vSAN. That step launched a major transformation of the college’s infrastructure that extends beyond the data center to virtualized desktops for students, says Farrior.

Squeezing That Hardware

Advantages in CPU efficiency and reduction in heating and cooling costs make virtualization a strategy that organizations should consider for almost all of their computing services, says Gartner Vice President David Cappuccio.

“It’s gotten to the point where the question becomes: Is there anything we shouldn’t virtualize?” Cappuccio says. “People virtualize to get more efficiency out of their hardware. If you’ve already got efficiency from an application on dedicated hardware, why bother? For the rest, you should consider virtualizing.”

Victoria College started by running four virtual servers on each physical processor of the new hardware, Farrior says, but that ratio grew as the IT staff observed performance. Now a UCS eight-blade chassis supports 110 virtual servers in the college’s data center.


Percentage of IT managers and executives who say virtualization is a significant priority for their organizations in 2015

SOURCE:Protiviti, “2015 IT Priorities Survey,” March 2015

“Applications often don’t require the CPU horsepower that your processors can provide, so the processing resources sit idle for the most part,” he says. “We try not to oversubscribe the RAM on physical machines, but you can go from eight servers to one and not see performance degradation. When you reduce the number of physical servers, you reduce the physical space needed, the electricity used and heat generated.”

Patrick Todd, lead for CDW’s team of Cisco UCS partner specialists, worked with Farrior’s staff to match UCS hard-­­ware to the college’s needs. “Successful virtualization is all about sizing and eliminating downtime,” he says. “The right alignment of physical and logical resources is what yields the benefits.”

What About Virtual Desktops?

The success of Victoria College’s virtual server implementation paved the way for client-side virtualization, Farrior says. The institution uses two four-server clusters of UCS rack-mounted physical servers to host 300 virtual desktops. The hard drives of the rack-mounted servers are locally attached solid-state drives, and regular hard drives create a hybrid storage array leveraging VMware vSAN. The configuration boosts performance and cuts reboot time for students as they log in to different devices on campus.

“Now we can tailor a software suite for a given course and provide a menu for students on their virtual desktops so they can select the right option,” he says. “People can use any software from anywhere on campus, and they can access their own files at home on personal devices through the Internet.”

The virtual client environment is more complex than server virtualization, but the virtual desktop infrastructure reduces the IT workload inherent in hardware and software replacement cycles in the college’s computer labs.

On the server side, virtualized servers are easier to manage than an all-physical environment, Farrior says. His team can monitor the data center from a single screen and perform maintenance with negligible interruption of service.

An additional advantage is the ability to reallocate hardware spending to fewer (but higher-powered) servers. “Because you need to buy fewer physical servers, you can afford to get the grade and caliber you need to increase performance even more,” Farrior says.

When Dense is Smart

At Boston College in Chestnut Hill, Mass., virtualization has become the default strategy for all but the most resource-intensive apps and services, says Michael Bourque, vice president for IT services.

“We have been virtualizing for close to a decade because it gives more efficient utilization of hardware assets and savings in electricity,” Bourque says. “A case like high-performance computing clusters for research would be an exception. If we really need to crank computing power to something, we’ll give it dedicated hardware. But we are a highly virtualized environment for everything else.”

Boston College — which enrolls 9,000 undergraduates and 4,500 graduate and professional students — runs its VMs on blade servers and converged infrastructure hardware. The college was an early adopter of VMTurbo performance allocation, monitoring and maintenance software, which helps the IT staff tune the environment for maximum efficiency.

“VMTurbo sets up an economic model — supply and demand,” Bourque says. “You can shift computing resources around as they’re needed. Virtualization gives you more agility and much less hardware downtime.”

A Management Assist

Management tools like VMTurbo can support IT staff in a cultural shift required by virtualized environments, Gartner’s Cappuccio says.

“IT is used to solving problems, so when there’s no red light on a physical server, there’s an assumption that all is well,” he says. “With virtualization, you need to continuously monitor the workload to make sure you’re using maximum capacity, not wasting money and resources.”

Properly configured for redundancy and failover, a virtualized environment is also as safe for mission-critical applications as a physical data center, Cappuccio says.

“This is tried-and-true technology,” Boston College’s Bourque advises. “Those who haven’t used it should try a pilot and measure the value that they gain.”

As for future plans at Victoria College, Farrior says he and his staff are considering a virtualized network. “From our experience, we would consider virtualizing almost any asset.”

Phoebe Rourke-Ghabriel