Oct 29 2009

Creating Private Clouds

Among its many, many definitions, cloud computing lets schools create their own utility-computing farms within their data infrastructure.

IT Infrastructure Upgrades

Microsoft Assessment and Planning Toolkit 4.0

Creating Private Clouds

ARCserve Backup File Server Suite 12.5

Plan for the Future

Call it the virtual cloud. Using virtualization software, government agencies, school districts and private enterprises are building “private clouds” inside their own data centers to maximize efficiencies, ensure continuity and build a smooth path to the future.

Lew Smith, who manages the virtualization solutions practice for tech consulting firm Interphase Systems, says publically funded institutions are often hesitant to move toward new technology, but the benefits of virtualization are slowly winning them over. And, he adds, organizations are looking at private clouds because commercial cloud vendors don't quite meet their requirements, especially when it comes to availability and security. But organizations need to prepare for the day the public cloud will be ready for them, he adds. VMware designed vSphere with that change in mind.

“VMware put a lot of things into vSphere that make it consistent with what commercial cloud operators are offering,” says Smith. “That will make the transition easier when people are ready to move into the public cloud.”

Slow but Steady

Schools tend to start their virtualization transformation slowly, building them up over time. For example, the 12,000 students at New Jersey's Union City School District probably never noticed when their schools began operating within a virtual cloud last year.

Instead of buying one new server for each of the 14 schools in Union City, last year the district bought four servers, loaded them up with VMware, and turned each physical machine into four virtual machines – giving them extra capacity when needed.

“Buying four beefy servers is much cheaper than buying 14 regular ones,” says Karl Pittenger, director of data systems for UCSD. But another key benefit is that virtual servers are easier to keep running with a limited IT staff. 

“In the past, when we had servers deployed into individual schools, we didn't have enough technicians in the district to go out to each school and make sure the servers were up to date,” he says. “Having all the servers centrally located in a virtual environment makes them much easier to manage and maintain.”

Next summer, the district plans to move older student information management systems into the district's virtual cloud. Pittenger says that will enable them to maintain access to the data, which the district is legally required to maintain for at least seven years after students have matriculated, while retiring older systems that are taking up valuable space.

Savings Sought

Like a lot of budget-strapped districts, Pittsford Central Schools in upstate New York wasn't ready to commit to virtualization just yet, so its IT department deployed VMware's free ESXi version to demonstrate the benefits virtualization can bring. By loading two classroom applications onto virtual machines, the district has already saved money and boosted performance, says Charles Profitt, systems administrator for PCS.

Cloud computing by the numbers

$56.3 billion: commercial cloud computing market, 2009
$150.1 billion: projected commercial cloud computing market, 2013
43%: change in virtualization software market, 2008 to 2009
$2.7 billion: total virtualization software market in 2009
1 in 5: number of organizations using some type of virtualization in 2009

SOURCE: Gartner

“Lots of applications written for the K–12 market don't play nicely with others,” says Profitt. “So instead of spending $3,000 to $5,000 on a separate server box for each one – or running them on old desktops, which really degrades the performance – we can run them in four virtual machines on a single server.”

Profitt hopes the success of Pittsford's virtualization program will convince the district to commit funds for the full-blown version of ESX. That would allow them to take advantage of Vmotion – which makes it easy to migrate virtual machines from one physical server to another – and support virtual hard drives, which would allow the district to replicate all its data at offsite locations, greatly enhancing disaster recovery.

“Lots of school districts with limited budgets begin with ESXi,” he says. “By proving that it works, you can build support to buy the full version.”

Deployment Tips

  • Seek out training. Vendors such as VMware offer intensive boot camps that get you up to speed quickly on the intricacies of virtualization.
  • Analyze your data and security needs. Building the right architecture from the ground up is key, says Interphase Systems' Lew Smith.
  • Classify your data. Sensitive or confidential information needs to be treated differently in a virtual environment, notes Dave Amsler, founder of Foreground Security.
  • Consider virtual storage. It will help get your organization up and running much faster when disaster strikes.
  • Load up on memory and network bandwidth. Virtual environments can be total resource hogs if not managed properly, but even still be prepared to plump up your network infrastructure.