Pulling it all together

Some companies are using as little as 4% of their server capacity because of the way hardware has been bought piecemeal to run...

Some companies are using as little as 4% of their server capacity because of the way hardware has been bought piecemeal to run new applications. Julia Vowler explains how consolidating your ITkit can deliver savings of up to 30%

With the economic downturn still biting, the prime directive in corporate IT is to cut costs. One of the most popular ways of doing this is IT consolidation. This can mean reducing the number of servers, sharing software or a variety of different activities, but all can contribute to reducing an IT department's annual spend.

Although consolidation can apply across the whole corporate IT infrastructure, one area that attracts the most attention is Windows servers. Windows servers have proliferated over the years, so much so that it is not uncommon for an organisation not to know how many servers it has. Often new applications can mean new boxes and server purchases can be easily funded from depart-mental budgets, bypassing IT.

"Taking an asset inventory can be a shock to the system," said Ian Brown, research director at Gartner. "Finding you have a lot more servers than you thought is by no means unusual. They can come in the backdoor."

When times are hard, there is a reluctance to tolerate low utilisation rates, which result in unused "white space". This is common on all servers. "One user with a large Unix server found he was only using between 4% and 8% of the resource," said Brown.

Andy Gallagher, managing consultant at benchmarking specialist Compass, said, "Unix utilisation is usually under 20%."

Similar low percentages also apply in the Wintel world. Andy Jordan, marketing manager at Unisys, said, "Utilisation for Wintel is about 5% to 15%, which is a negative return on investment."

Gallagher said, "If you get more than 10% utilisation on Wintel you are doing well."

IBM e-consultant Peter Norris said typical white space levels of 93%-95% on Wintel compares with less than 2% on mainframes.

Therefore it can be compelling to believe that more utilisation can be had from fewer boxes by running multiple applications from each box. However, the technical ability to do that with Wintel was limited until only recently. Now, third-party suppliers are releasing the right tools for the job.

Even Microsoft is getting in on the act by buying up software and making Windows 2000 more capable of supporting more applications on a single system, according to Phil McLean, product marketing manager at Hewlett-Packard.

It is now feasible to bunch applications on one server via partitioning - the "rational" consolidation identified by Gartner (see box). "Three types of partitioning are possible," said Jordan. "A hard partition [one or more dedicated processors], which runs its own instance of the operating system; a software partition which runs multiple instances of the OS which are hosted under one master OS, and a soft partition, where one instance of the OS runs multiple applications. This last example is called co-hosting and gives the greatest level of compaction."

It is also possible to combine several tiers of consolidation where large Unix multiprocessors are divided into several, smaller hard partitions. Each partition has its own copy of the OS and can run multiple applications.

But application consolidation cannot be done blindly. It is more than just a question of soaking up white space with anything to hand. As well as sizing the applications, understanding their demands and identifying any cumulative peaks when they run together, the criticality of the applications to be consolidated also needs to be assessed. "It is potentially problematical," said McLean. "You do not want to risk e-mail servers going down."

Not all applications work well together," said Brown. "Some can be badly behaved. Suppliers are not always keen for users to run multiple applications on a single instance because they do not want to accept responsibility if there is a problem.

"For example, Microsoft Exchange Server tries to grab resources, whereas SQL Server gives them up when it does not need them. If two applications are sharing dynamic link libraries, one may need a different version which Windows is not friendly with."

You should filter out applications that make direct calls on the OS kernel. "If the applications are not well-written, they could make an illegal call and cause the operating system to hang," said Jordan. If other applications are using the same instance of the operating system, they will hang too. Home-grown and older applications are the most likely culprits.

"The database also has to be the same," said Gallagher. "If you are running big Oracle and Sybase applications on the same server, I can guarantee they will generate internal resource conflict."

Matthew Keep, server product manager at Sun Microsystems, said, "It is easy to underestimate the complexity of each operating environment: how predictable the application load is, how often the applications are taken down and backed up, or how often they are patched or scheduled for downtime. You need to profile your applications in more ways than just the required performance."

In the silo world of distributed applications, there can be hundreds of copies of the same data. Consolidating data can lead to issues of availability and ownership.

Storage also has to be considered. Server utilisation can be more efficient if shared storage is moved to storage area networks. Server consolidation will almost inevitably go hand-in-hand with the adoption of San and network-attached storage instead of direct-attached storage.

Network infrastructure is also likely to be affected by server and storage architectures. "You could need more bandwidth in a consolidated environment," said McLean. Gallagher said, "A 'like-for-like' consolidation to reduce white space should more than pay for itself." But the amount of white space you get rid of is not directly related to the cost that can be saved - especially when Moore's Law remorselessly eats into the cost of processing.

"The typical IT budget breaks down into 10% on hardware, 10% on facilities and networking, 30% on software and 50% on people," said Norris. Consolidation can help reduce costs in all areas. Co-location alone cuts down on site costs and reduces the geographical duplication of skill sets.

"The major drive behind consolidation is to reduce the number of software licences and the range of software," said Graham Titterington, principle analyst at Ovum. "If there is less of a variety of software, there is a higher possibility of negotiating a better discount."

Portfolio rationalisation - reducing hardware and software versions and suppliers - is mostly happening within platforms, but cross-platform consolidation is also a possibility. "Some customers are moving from Wintel to Unix and others move from proprietary Unix to Linux," said McLean.

Norris said, "We have an insurance company with 1,100 NT4 servers. Of these, 300 could become virtual blades on mainframe Linux, doing work such as e-mail and file and print, and another 400 could go to Linux on Intel." According to Norris, consolidating to mainframes lets users take advantage of a more mature management environment.

But consolidation is not simply about reducing costs, crucial though that is. It is also about putting corporate IT in order and making it simpler and easier to manage.

"Almost everyone involved in consolidation projects is looking to be more efficient, irrespective of whether times are tight," said McLean.

Keep said, "The real reason for consolidation is to improve service levels and deliver business agility - to optimise the IT infrastructure while IT is under a little less pressure in terms of new projects."

Inevitably, consolidation is a move towards the re-centralisation of IT. This runs counter to the devolution that gave IT budgets and purchasing power back to the departments. While the recession might hand the IT department carte blanche to grab back control of corporate IT, cultural issues will affect the success or failure of consolidation.

"You have got to get executive sponsorship," said Keep. "We have worked with organisations where it is absent and it created problems. You must look at the cultural impact of sharing systems."

There is also a cultural impact. Consolidation moves corporate IT towards a datacentre culture, which is historically alien for Unix and, especially, Wintel professionals. Norris said, "Platform teams are defending their empires and are unwilling to face change."

However, a consolidation project can join these disparate fiefdoms. "You should end up with the best of both worlds," said Jordan. "The orderly, disciplined, process-driven mindset of the datacentre, plus the creative, fast-cycle mindset of Wintel."

Unless platform expertise is pooled, intelligent judgements about which platforms are most suitable for certain applications cannot be made. It is also vital to accommodate the future when consolidating. "Do not just consider your headroom now," said McLean. "Look at what you will need two or three years down the line. It could take nine to 12 months to consolidate."

Brown said, "Consolidation should be on the agenda of IT departments if for no other reason than getting asset management in order and standardising software stacks."

However, Titterington warned, "Be careful about making changes to your IT architecture - what you have now, works."

All the same, the drive to consolidate is compelling. Gallagher believes that by applying consolidation across the board, from co-location to software asset management, a business can save 30% on running costs. And in the current gloomy economic climate, that is a persuasive percentage.

Logical, physical or rational

Gartner lists the following types of consolidation:

This process ensures all software and middleware are the same version and that standard processes are in place to acquire them. 

There can be two types of physical consolidation. Large-scale reduces the number of datacentres from several dozen to half a dozen. Small-scale can bring servers in branches or departments back to the centre, moving to rack-mounted servers rather than towers. 

This is where workloads are placed on fewer servers and multiple applications run on bigger servers by hardware or software partitioning.

Six steps to consolidate your IT   

Asset inventory 
Count what you have, where it is, what versions are running, how long the licences are valid for and when software and hardware upgrades are due.  

Capacity planning 
How much capacity do you need, irrespective of its location? Allow enough room for growth. Ensure network capacity is included.  

Risk management 
The risk profile of a consolidated organisation will change and this must be identified, assessed and agreed to. Not all applications can co-exist without endangering the performance and availability, and co-location can erode disaster recovery resilience. 

Political management 
Centralisation of IT can turn into a political situation and business buy-in must be sought. Both the IT department and other business departments may resist consolidation. 

Hardware and software portfolios have to be simplified. If end-users must have non-standard software, ensure they can accommodate the extra support costs incurred. 

Future planning 
Consolidation is a major task and it will take time. Ensure that any type of growth during the project has been allowed for and anticipate demands beyond the life of the project.

Costs and savings   

  • How does consolidation save money? 
  • If hardware is used to the extent of the "white space", spare boxes can be disposed of 
  • Fewer boxes means less floorspace 
  • Maintenance costs can be reduced and free boxes can be kept as spares 
  • Standardising on software can enable a firm to ask for higher discounts  
  • San and Nas architectures can enable more efficient sharing of disc space 
  • The number of skills needed to run different systems is reduced. 

What could cost more? 

  • Upgrade costs for all applications 
  • Training end-users for upgraded applications 
  • Networking requirements could increase 
  • Cross-training IT staff on consolidated platforms 
  • Bringing in external expertise to devise and conduct the consolidation project 
  • Software licences could be priced for a more powerful box  
  • Losing the local end-users who unofficially tended the boxes can mean increasing central support.

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