Local authorities under pressure for savings should take a fresh look at servers
Peter Gershon's review of public sector efficiency last year has created a new challenge for local authority IT managers. And modern technologies are the only way to meet his call for annual efficiency gains of 2.5% up to 2007-2008 by improving internal processes.
Intel-compatible servers play an important role in local authority IT infrastructures, with each server usually dedicated to a distinct function such as e-mail or file-print, and they are commonly aligned to a specific council department, such as education or social services.
As a result, a local authority can have dozens of servers on different sites, each needing its own power supply, ventilation, floor space and operating system.
When something goes wrong, the process of locating the fault wastes time, and if a security patch is needed, it has to be applied to each individual server, which pushes up support costs.
With dozens of rack-mounted servers in rows, each trailing its own power supply and network connection cords, the cable spaghetti can be daunting.
Systems administrators act like digital ferrets, scurrying down tunnels of hardware, pulling out and plugging in cables in a bid to keep the intricate set-up running smoothly.
However, there is a better way to run council IT: blade servers.
Blade servers are slim enough to sit side by side in a single chassis, like books in a bookshelf. Each is an independent server, with its own processors, memory, storage, network controllers, operating system and applications, but able to share resources (such as power, fans, floppy drives, switches and ports) with other blade servers.
This considerably reduces the servers' footprint and allows the systems to be centralised in one secure physical location, which in turn reduces wiring and network traffic and even improves back-up and business continuity.
It has the added advantage of putting the data into an environment that ensures better security, with the people best positioned to look after the procedures and processes - the IT professionals - in situ.
If a blade server develops a fault, it can be taken out of service and a replacement brought online rapidly, reducing downtime and improving service levels.
Once servers have been consolidated in a blade system, performance can be better monitored and loads balanced to get maximum advantage from the hardware. This could include using IT resources in the evening for batch-based and analysis workloads when all the knowledge workers have gone home.
Such measures make better use of IT assets, which reduces associated costs.
More efficiencies can come with the deployment of further server and storage consolidation technologies, such as VMware (allowing multiple server environments to run on a larger server), and storage area networks (providing faster and more secure access).
Phil Ruston is director of public sector at Bull Information Systems