IT Director David Dees says Suwannee County School District saved money by cutting its server farm in half.

Jul 13 2010
Data Center

A Checklist for Your Next Data Center Upgrade

Educators offer ideas for improving storage through consolodation, virtualization.

A few years back, Suwannee County School District IT Director David Dees was up to his eyeballs in servers.

“We had almost 30 physical servers,” Dees says of his district, which comprises eight schools serving roughly 6,300 students in Live Oak and Branford, Fla. “It seemed like servers were self-replicating, and we needed to get a handle on how many we had.”

They did, thanks to a server virtualization effort that streamlined the district's data center, reducing the number of servers by more than half. Using a combination of VMware software, a storage area network and HP BladeSystem blade servers, the district scaled back to 14 physical servers – and will probably remove three more over the summer, Dees says.

By eliminating the need to replace worn-out servers every five years, the district saves money. “The virtualization project has already paid for itself,” he says.

Suwannee County is hardly alone in moving toward server virtualization. Baltimore City Public Schools in Maryland, Framingham Public Schools in Massachusetts and Glen Ridge Public Schools in New Jersey all have migrated to this technology. And that trend is likely to continue.

According to Enterprise Strategy Group's “2010 IT Spending Intentions Survey,” 52 percent of educational insti­tutions cited increased use of server virtualization as their No. 1 priority over the next 12 to 18 months. Sixty percent called the consolidation of more physical servers onto virtualization platforms their top initiative.

It's easy to see why. With virtualization software it's possible to run multiple virtual servers on a single physical server, in turn sharing the resources of that machine across multiple environments. Instead of taking a day and a half (or more) to build a new physical server to run applications, virtualization software builds images, enabling IT staff to create a new server in about an hour. The cost savings also are compelling (see Top Three, below).

Virtual Realities

IT personnel who have been through the virtualization process suggest these best practices for school districts just getting started:

1. Get staff on board early. Dees made sure his entire team was involved in the transition process. Once all 10 IT staff members understood how server virtualization worked, they embraced it, Dees says, and that “made my job a lot easier. They see the benefits it offers in terms of minimizing support time and how long it takes us to address problems.”

2. Ask for vendor guidance. “After the fact, we brought HP in to look at our blade system and make sure we were running it properly,” Dees says, “but I would advise anyone doing this to bring in their vendor to assist in setting up the system.”

3. Take stock of inventory. Adam Seldow, director of technology for Framingham Public Schools, recommends taking a hard look at the number of servers you're using and figuring out how many you really need for the applications you're running. Can you consolidate multiple applications on one server instead of dedicating one application to each server?

By running 162 virtual servers on seven physical servers, Baltimore City Public Schools – a system that comprises 201 schools serving 83,000 K–12 students – was able to clear out a lot of old equipment, says Information Security Manager James M. Smith Jr. The move also opened up significant real estate in the data center, he adds.

At the same time, it's important not to underestimate the level of computing resources you'll need to maintain performance. “Even though things are going virtual, they still require the same CPU, memory and disk space,” Smith warns. If you're eliminating old servers, move salvageable memory and other components to the newer servers, Seldow adds.

4. Be selective. Not all applications can or should be virtualized. Framingham Public Schools uses its physical servers to run high-volume applications, such as e-mail. “Unless the vendor will certify that its product works in a virtual environment, you don't want to [virtualize], because you'll void your warranty or support” for that application, Seldow explains.

Winnie Kievit, director of technology for Glen Ridge Public Schools, chose not to virtualize the server running her domain controller so that the network will remain operational if there's a power failure, she says.

50% of all educational institutions have two data centers; a mere 8% plan to build new ones.

Source: Enterprise Strategy Group

5. Consider a two- (or even three-) tier architecture that combines expensive disks with cheaper options. To prevent server overload, Baltimore City Public Schools implemented a two-tier architecture using two IBM SANs. One has a Fibre Channel architecture for real-time applications that require very fast speeds, Smith says, and the other is a less expensive Serial ATA, which is used for secondary storage needs.

6. Centralize blade system management. Doing so reduces the need to log in to connect to servers across the district, Suwannee County's Dees says.

It also significantly changes the look of the data center. Baltimore City Public Schools is using 12 IBM BladeCenter chassis, which Smith says can hold up to 14 servers apiece. The solution allows them to house more servers in a smaller space. But it also generates more heat inside the data center, which IT addressed by upgrading the air-conditioning unit and by establishing hot and cold aisles.

As a result, the backs of racks point toward each other, concentrating the hot air in one section of the center and preserving the circulation of cold air everywhere else.

7. Consider high-availability software if you can't afford downtime. If an actual physical blade goes down, “all we have to do is turn on a server on another physical blade virtually, and we're right back up,'' Dees says of Suwannee County's VMware-powered system. “The only downtime is how long it takes the server to boot.”

8. Embrace redundancy. Framingham's Seldow likes VMware's VMotion technology, which allows IT to migrate a virtual server from one physical server to another in close to real time.

“These virtual servers live on a real server,” he says. “If one loses power, VMotion instantaneously transfers all the virtual servers to another operational physical server.”

9. Make sure you can scale as you grow. When Glen Ridge's Kievit configured her first 1GB server, “I thought, ‘This is it. I will never fill this up,' ” she recalls. “We used to talk in terms of gigabytes; now we talk terabytes.”

As your school's needs grow, “add another SAN to accommodate more applications and servers,” she says. “It's all about bandwidth and storage now.”

Top Three

There are many reasons to include server virtualization in a data center consolidation. Here are the biggest advantages:

  • Cost savings. Virtualizing a server that would otherwise be retired and replaced can save a school $3,000 to $5,000, says James M. Smith Jr., information security manager for Baltimore City Public Schools. The energy savings also bear mentioning: According to Director of Technology Adam Seldow, consolidating the servers at Framingham (Mass.) Public Schools' 13 sites into 50 virtual servers contributed to a year-over-year energy cost savings of $25,000.
  • Time savings. “It's very easy to configure your ideal server and just clone it,” Seldow explains, instead of spending an hour or two installing software, patches and drivers on new physical servers. “What used to be a half-day project is now done in a matter of minutes.”
  • Improved disaster recovery and backup. Server virtualization allows for quick and easy machine replication. With VMware's vSphere software, for example, “we no longer have to deploy servers at the schools,” Smith explains. Instead, “we now have the ability to quickly create and present a server” to any school that needs one.
<p>Jansen Hande</p>

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