Oct 12 2006

More Servers May Equal More Hassle

School districts reap the benefits of running fewer—but more powerful—servers.

At the Republican State Convention in 1858, with civil war looming, Abraham Lincoln drew on his biblical knowledge to warn the nation that “a house divided against itself cannot stand.”

His caution continues to apply to matters of state, but school districts are finding it applies equally well to the state of their IT infrastructures.

Like their counterparts in government and industry, school IT departments scrambled to respond to constituents’ clamor for more services, wider access to services, and stronger security overall by piling on applications and the servers needed to run them. Now those IT shops are wrestling with the challenge of managing the technology chaos created by large numbers of widely dispersed computers and applications that are gobbling network and IT staff resources.

Rather than continuing to divide computing resources among dozens of servers, some IT managers are unifying their operations in tightly controlled server clusters. The task is neither simple nor painless, but IT managers who have taken action to consolidate their servers are relieving maintenance headaches and watching their costs plummet.

For many school districts, server consolidation makes good sense. It’s easier and cheaper to maintain a handful of computers in a single location than it is to manage numerous dispersed servers. Also, centralization enables a small staff to quickly deal with system glitches and software upgrades, and to handle backups of important data more easily and reliably.

Some districts are leveraging that advantage to streamline data access and storage by installing a storage area network (SAN), thus getting an even greater bang for their consolidation buck. Finally, reducing the number of servers and placing them in a single, secure location under the management of the IT group makes security more controllable.

The return on investment (ROI) for server consolidation tends to be high, but users sometimes have to change the way they use IT resources. These changes are apparent during the migration from central computing resources, but schools that have been through the process say it’s worth the effort.

A Consolidation Convert

The San Antonio Edgewood Independent School District, which has almost 13,000 students, is one convert to server consolidation. During the past year, EISD has been consolidating its server count from about 80 boxes distributed across two dozen schools and administrative buildings to a compact four-machine cluster centralized at its headquarters.

The advancing age of the San Antonio district’s IT hardware served as a catalyst for the consolidation project.

“We were having a hard time maintaining all the servers, which were getting old and dying,” says Robin Cook, senior systems engineer and network administrator for the district. “It was costing us more in time to maintain them than they were worth, and we didn’t want to pay to replace or upgrade all 80 of them.”

Instead, the district opted for a quartet of high-powered servers, each boasting three gigabytes (GB) of random access memory and dual Intel Xeon processors.

Because the district was continually running short on data storage capacity, it installed a SAN along with the new servers. EISD now stores about 600GB of data on its Fibre Channel SAN, which can grow to two terabytes as needed.

“We needed to upgrade our storage capacities because the school wanted to create student portfolios that follow them from kindergarten through twelfth grade,” Cook says. “Previously, people were using the smaller servers for storing data they wanted to share, while they stored their personal files on their local workstation. We’re now converting so that people store everything—including e-mail—centrally.”

Up-front planning eased the process of migrating data from across the district into one central location. “Definitely plan ahead,” Cook advises. “You can’t move data around while school is in session.”

To simplify the process of moving data from remote servers to the centralized cluster, the district opted for a clean-slate approach. “We decided to create a whole new [data authorization and hierarchy] system that was separate from what the old servers used,” Cook says.

Concurrent with the consolidation and SAN implementation, the district embarked on a systemwide upgrade that added 100Mbps (megabits per second) switches to the school’s network and created a backbone that simultaneously handles voice, video and data traffic.

Costs for the consolidation and SAN were combined with the $14 million network upgrade project. Because consolidation represented one piece of the bigger initiative, it’s hard to break out its ROI, Cook says. But he’s pleased to have up-to-date levels of server power without having to buy dozens of new units, and he now spends only a fraction of his time on maintenance chores.

A Prudent Growth Plan

Growth is a constant at Montgomery County Public Schools in Rockville, Md. The district comprises 191 schools, employs 10,000 teachers, and has a current student enrollment of 140,000. The system is the twelfth fastest growing school district in the nation, and this ongoing growth spurt puts the IT department under pressure to buy more servers to support the growing student population and new school initiatives.

John Porter, deputy superintendent in the county’s Office of Strategic Technologies and Accountability, decided that rolling in more servers without first re-examining the overall computing enterprise would result in uncontrolled costs and managerial problems for the IT department. Porter, until recently CIO of the county’s Office of Global Access Technology, directed his staff to find a more prudent approach.

“We began looking for opportunities to consolidate the enterprise,” says Sherwin Collette, special assistant for technology and accountability. “We stepped away from looking just at server consolidation to look at our enterprise architecture and what we were doing in terms of servers and storage.”

The investigation identified new IT goals, including trading in what Collette calls the “break-fix posture” of attending to aging minicomputer-class servers for a proactive strategy. “At one point, we ran three different varieties of Unix,” Collette says. “We wanted to consolidate on one platform and bring in servers that would give us the ability to scale as needs grew.”

District IT managers worried that they couldn’t guarantee that every server was being backed up on schedule. This was a potentially disastrous situation: A large-scale system crash would require the district to go into recovery mode.

Consolidation was viewed as the solution to many of these problems. Focusing on the main administrative office, the district went from a high of about 100 servers three years ago down to 80 machines. Today, a two-server cluster handles the office’s file and print duties. Some of the district’s financial, student and asset management databases, which once required eight servers, now reside comfortably on one database server.

In addition, the Montgomery County Public Schools envisioned SANs working with the server consolidation to increase storage capabilities. But Montgomery’s conundrum was centered on the lack of flexibility in using the storage space it had. When it packed individual servers it wasn’t able to reallocate any of that capacity for use by an overburdened box.

“With a SAN, we can dynamically allocate disk space,” says Cary Kuhar, director of the Systems Architecture and Operations Division. “And it makes our storage more efficient.”

As with the San Antonio school district, the result was worth the effort for Montgomery County. Kuhar says the server consolidation effort has reduced maintenance costs from about $200,000 a year for the district’s old database servers to a current level of less than $50,000 for the new consolidated server. Savings from consolidating the newer computers are less dramatic, but still hover around 35 percent, Collette adds.

The benefits of server consolidation go beyond budgetary issues, Collette points out. “We’ve limited the [data loss] risk in our environment, and we have a higher level of confidence in the availability of our servers,” he says.

All in all, it’s an IT house in solid standing.

Alan Joch is a New Hampshire-based freelance writer who covers technology.

Laying the Groundwork

Though server consolidation gets raves from some school IT leaders, it’s not the primary goal for all—not yet anyway.

Before Norm Leffeler, technical support director for the Rockwood School District in Eureka, Mo., takes the plunge, he’s laying some groundwork: upgrading his district’s network and completing storage consolidation around a storage area network (SAN). But that doesn’t mean Leffeler isn’t making his server operations more efficient.

Rockwood has taken an effective first step by centralizing its servers. The district is running the same number of boxes, but instead of trying to manage them while they’re distributed across a district that spans 150 square miles and 30 schools in western St. Louis County, Rockwood is in the process of securing them in one location. So far, about half of the 35 servers have been relocated at the main office.

“When all the servers are centralized, we can monitor the room temperatures and have them all on an uninterruptible power supply backup with a standby generator,” Leffeler says. “We also can begin connecting them to our SAN unit. And centralization means we can launch a quicker response when there’s a problem.”

Leffeler’s foundation program has been advancing on other fronts as well. Last year, the district finished installing a Gigabit Ethernet network.

“From our standpoint, we couldn’t think about consolidating until we had a network that could handle it,” he says. “Now, we can look at the possibility of server consolidation.”