University virtualises to save £120k

Lancaster University has saved over £100,000 on electricity bills and more than £20,000 on hardware procurement in less than three years after virtualising large chunks of its x86 server estate.

Lancaster University has saved over £100,000 on electricity bills and more than £20,000 on hardware procurement in less than three years after virtualising large chunks of its x86 server estate.

The organisation, which is based in north-west England and educates about 11,000 students, began a four-month pilot of EMC's VMWare technology in March 2006. Its datacentre was starting to hit capacity in terms of the amount of power being consumed to run and cool its IT infrastructure and it was running out of space.

Matthew Storey, systems technical co-ordinator for information systems services at the University, says: "We started examining virtualisation to reduce the impact of the physical issues we were facing, but we also explored other benefits that came along with that. Although the real focus was on cost savings, there's also an active desire in the university to be more 'green'. And from a management perspective, it's far easier to manage a large number of virtualised servers than lots of machines with different operating systems."

The decision was taken to consolidate 18 physical servers down to four, although this number has now risen to 11 Dell blade servers, running more than 130 virtual machines.



The benefits

The move has meant the University can provide staff and students with growing numbers of IT services without needing to change or expand its existing physical location. It has also led to the consolidation of multiple servers - "hidden away in cupboards and under people's desks" - back into the datacentre, so they can be managed more easily and effectively.

The deployment has freed IT staff from time-consuming server support and hastened the time to deploy new applications. While in the past, provisioning a new system could take up to a month, introducing a new virtual machine takes only hours.

"Because we're not spending so much time supporting ageing hardware and the deployment of virtual machines is much more rapid, we can do much more with our resources. This enables us to explore new technology and different approaches and generally provide a better service with the same resources as before," explains Storey.

The improved use of resources is partially down to the introduction of a single pane of glass management console, however. The software provides an instant ability to see what the server estate is doing and whether any bottlenecks are arriving. In such an event action can be taken, making the environment easier to manage.

But beyond the expected lower bills in utilities and hardware, the University has also realised savings from ancillary systems such as UPSs, KVM and network switches. "You still need them with virtual systems but in reduced numbers, so that contributes to a general reduction in costs, maintenance requirements, support contracts and the like," points out Storey.


Virtualisation limits

But he warns that it is still not advisable or even possible to virtualise all kinds of applications. Some suppliers, whether large vendors or niche players, still do not support the technology in either all or some of their packages. This means that organisations keen to press ahead regardless have to either take the risk of providing such support themselves or be prepared to move packages back onto physical hardware should faults occur in order to show the manufacturer where problems have occurred.

The University itself has also chosen not to virtualise some high I/O systems such as web caches because of the related performance overhead, which includes the amount of network bandwidth needed. It has likewise been unable to virtualise packages with specific hardware requirements such as dongles, which are added for security purposes.


The next step

The next stage from here, meanwhile, involves fine-tuning the existing implementation. As a result, the IT team is currently exploring different approaches to improve the efficiency of undertaking back-ups. "At the moment, we back up each virtual machine, but it's time-consuming, puts a load on the virtual back end and there are smarter ways of doing it. Many virtual machines are 90 per cent identical - the difference lies in the applications and data - so we're looking at tools that would just back up a sub-set," Storey says.

The organisation is likewise currently exploring whether to undertake an application rationalisation exercise, while undertaking a VMWare-based pilot project to evaluate the benefits of virtualising its desktop.


Top tips

  • Deploy management consoles to save on administration and support costs
  • Consider whether you can take the risk of deploying unsupported applications
  • Continue fine-tuning your implementation by keeping an eye out for new management tools that can make life easier


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External links

Lancaster University >>

Department of Finace and Personnel: IT Assist >>

Presentation of IT Assist's virtualisation project >>

Read more on Networking hardware

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