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The Prudential say yes to virtual servers

The Prudential is backing server virtualisation technology with a decision to replace its department individual servers with VMware run on shared centralised servers. 

Shared eight-way Hewlett-Packard Proliant servers running VMware will move the company towards its utility computing goal. It is already using VMware to centralise 800 desktops onto two-way servers, and has replaced 80 development servers with a pair of eight-way systems. 

The decision is part of a strategy of consolidation and standardisation, said Andy Ruby, head of infrastructure and design for the Pru's IT subsidiary PruTech. "We needed to refresh the hardware, the choice was to do like-for-like or adopt a new model, with extra short term costs but long term benefits." he said. "Server consolidation pays for itself versus like-for-like. 

"The ultimate aim is to get to true utility. To an extent I can do that internally, but to get to true utility I need the equivalent of the National Grid - shared services along bureau lines, with the suppliers taking the risk." 

In the meantime, he is doing what he can to provide utility computing at a local level. PruTech's development servers were moved over first to prove that consolidating on VMware was viable: "We have now implemented two more eight-way servers and plan to get 20 production servers on each." 

Ruby added that in the past his team could spend a day building a server that was needed only because some departmental application required its own private host, and would probably then peak at one percent CPU utilisation.

Now, the same can be achieved faster and more efficiently - and if downtime is needed, he can use VMware's Vmotion software to move a running virtual server from one physical machine to another. 

"We have also virtualised around 800 desktops to 70 two-way servers running VMWare in Scotland and Reading, at six users per processor," he confirmed. The problem here was that staff at the Pru's call centre in Mumbai (Bombay) could not use the normal thick-client Windows applications against its back-office systems because of latency on the long distance network. 

"We had to get the Windows apps closer to the servers, but one or two of them didn't work on Citrix Systems. We couldn't put 100 PCs in the datacentre so it was a choice between PC blades and VMWare," Ruby said.

The solution was to use virtual PCs running on two-way servers in the UK datacentres, and Windows XP's terminal services on PCs in Mumbai. "Thin clients would have been better," he added, "but there was no time and we wanted minimum risk." 

HP said that some forms of server virtualisation are already widely used at the high end, with anything up to 80% of 16-way servers using hard or soft partitioning. Thomas Ullrich, marketing director for HP's EMEA customer solutions group, acknowledged that they are a small part of the total market, but said that VMware allows users of smaller servers to consider virtualisation too. 

Indeed, server virtualisation is essential if enterprises are to achieve capacity on demand and utility computing, according to IDC server analyst Thomas Meyer. He said it will take years to feed through, though. "We are there with virtualisation, but I'd question how many people are using it," he said. "It's a $250m  (£139m) market now and will be $1.7bn by 2008 - but there will still be alternatives in 2008 because people move at a different pace." 

This suspicion that virtualisation remains a well-known but unused technology at the moment, despite efforts by big manufacturers, was re-iterated recently by several analysts and big firms that are a natural target for virtualisation suppliers.

Bryan Betts writes for Techworld


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