Case Study: Royal Mail virtualises legacy Windows

The Royal Mail Group (RMG) has used Microsoft's Hyper-V virtualisation infrastructure, to enable it to run legacy applications on modern hardware.

The...

The Royal Mail Group (RMG) has used Microsoft's Hyper-V virtualisation infrastructure, to enable it to run legacy applications on modern hardware.

The deployment, using HP hardware, has the capacity to host around 720 RMG servers, of which around 120 virtual machines - including production servers - have been migrated so far. By virtualising its server estate, RMG expects a return on investment in 19 months and savings of £1.8 million over four years.

"Hyper-V allows us to consolidate all of our legacy servers into a data centre. We have 500 distributed offices, all quite large," said Adrian Steel, head of infrastructure management, Royal Mail Group.

Since 2003, RMG has outsourced its IT to service provider CSC. The contract covers desktops and servers, but it did not cover upgrading aging applications onto modern versions of Windows, he said.

"As servers got to end of life, CSC would upgrade to the latest OS, and hardware as part of its refresh contract. CSC will build a new server, But if you've got a new box there is good chance you will have to change Microsoft SQL Server and rewrite the application. Our outsource deal didn't allow for CSC to pick up the cost of the rewrite."

To overcome this limitation, RMG has used Hyper-V on top of new Windows 2008 R2 servers to run Windows NT, Windows 2000 and Windows 2003 line of business applications in a virtual sever environment. Hyper-V enables RMG to take advantage of hardware and OS refreshes, while still running legacy applications, which, without modifications, would be unable to run on the new server infrastructure.

RMG is well underway with the server virtualisation migration, which Steel says is no longer viewed as a project, but business as usual. With 70 virtual servers completed in the initial phase, the number has now risen to 120, with a target of up to 400 by the end of 2010 financial year end. Projected savings are on target, while business productivity gains have already

He said: "We had a service with CSC - to upgrade the legacy OS to R2 a lot quicker. Hyper-V allows us to move to new virtual stacks very rapidly and virtualise quickly."

RMG began the rollout with its pre-production test environment as this was considered less critical to the business. Steel said: "We prioritise applications to move by risk." RMG identifies the oldest servers, and assesses the business risk by working with business. "The business gave use a prioritisation matrix," he said.

In the physical world, when IT departments needed to do a refresh they had to buy more kit, and switch clients over. If the application did not work, IT needed to switch back to the old infrastructure. "It was quite difficult to refresh [systems] on physical servers."

Server virtualisation has many advantages in helping the business migrate its legacy Windows applications, Steel added. "We can take a clone of the database, and bring a new virtual server up, test in UAT [user acceptance testing], and refresh the data in seconds,"

Desktop and beyond

Now that the server side has been virtualised, RMG will look at the desktop. Steel said every XP/Office 2003 desktop will be updated to Windows 7 and Office 2010, in 2011.

In August RMG replaced its Lotus Notes groupware system with Microsoft BPOS (Microsoft Business Productivity Online Standard Suite). This cloud-based service provides messaging and collaboration tools, delivered as a subscription service. It includes Microsoft Exchange Online for e-mail and calendaring; Microsoft SharePoint Online for portals and document sharing; Microsoft Office Communications Online for presence availability; and Office Live Meeting for web and video conferencing.

The company is also starting to investigate whether to adopt VDI fully for its desktop PCs. It already runs Citrix, to provide thin client access to Windows client applications.

Assessment and Planning
 
CSC and Microsoft used the Microsoft Assessment and Planning Toolkit to analyse the RMG's IT estate and identify appropriate servers for virtualisation. Microsoft's Dynamic Infrastructure Toolkit for System Center is also being used to help data centres pool resources more efficiently.

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