Before embarking on a full-blown virtualisation roll-out, many organisations try a small pilot first. This is exactly the approach the Northern Ireland Civil Service has taken. IT Assist, which was set up in April 2007 as a result of consolidating and centralising eight separate departments, started its virtualisation pilot project about 12 months ago.
Caron Alexander, head of technology for the IT Assist shared service centre at the Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS), says, "It is important to start small and prove that the technology works in order to build confidence and get stakeholder buy-in. With a small project, people can see the benefits quickly without there being high up-front costs and that makes it much easier to move forward and do bigger things," says Alexander.
Following the creation of two datacentres, one of which is used for disaster recovery purposes, the decision was taken to find ways to rationalise and consolidate NICS' x86 server estate. The majority of machines were located in individual departments, but the aim was to migrate them to the main site over time, before subsequently virtualising them using EMC's VMware software, says Alexander.
"In terms of the business case, reducing cost was a huge thing. Things are financially tight and so we wanted to cut costs in relation to space, server build costs, licensing and support," she explains.
"But sustainability and anything to do with reducing the carbon footprint in government and the Northern Ireland Civil Service is also huge and this was an area where we could make a real contribution."
Resilience was another key issue, however. "If a virtual server fails, the load will automatically be put onto another machine of the same build and it happens almost instantly, which would never happen with physical servers. You would have to do back-up and restore, but it is a much cleaner, slicker contingency in the virtual world," Alexander says.
As a result, the Northern Ireland Civil Service decided to undertake a pilot project to test these ideas out and gain more experience of the technology. Although IT staff had already worked on some tactical deployments, it was felt that more knowledge and experience was required to assess and exploit its full potential.
"People tend to do pilots when there is potential nervousness as they have not dealt with the technology much before and so they do not want to do a big bang implementation. It is about ensuring that you want to move forward, looking at lessons learned and phasing those into a larger project," Alexander explains.
The team identified a group of about 53 web servers out of a total estate of 200 that were already hosted at the main datacentre as being the most suitable candidates.
Consultants from Dell Services were then brought in to audit the machines and provide information on how they were used and what would be the best approach going forwards.
The final report indicated that due to low levels of resource utilisation, a lot of redundancy existed in the current set-up and it, therefore, advised that the number of physical servers be consolidated down to 10, which is a ratio of about 8:1.
This represents significant cost savings for IT Assist as it leases its datacentre space and can, therefore, pay for every rack in the datacentre.
A key benefit of going down this route, says Alexander, was that it "gave us a recommendation that could be cost-justified, particularly in terms of space reduction. There were power advantages too and, while they were not huge, there was a marked improvement".
Another lesson learned from the pilot scheme was the importance of obtaining stakeholder buy-in to initiatives of this type.
"The thing about change is that no one likes it really and so there were concerns about 'why risk changing something that is not broken', even if it is the best way to do it. So it was about bringing people along and keeping them involved so that they could see the benefits for themselves," says Alexander.
The next stage of the initiative, meanwhile, will involve virtualising the final tranche of web servers, before starting to undertake audits of line of business machines in order to consolidate and virtualise them too.
But IT Assist is also working with the Enterprise Design Authority to explore the benefits in terms of supportability, security and cost-effectiveness of adopting desktop virtualisation technology over the next three to five years.
The authority is responsible for helping NICS create a standards-based IT infrastructure and for providing advice to other Northern Irish public sector bodies.