JRC IPTS reaps rewards of desktop virtualisation project

JRC IPTS launched a project to run customised, high-performance virtual machines. The resulting benefits won it the Best Desktop Virtualisation award at VMworld Europe 2011.

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While many organisations adopt desktop virtualisation to consolidate IT systems, the Institute for Prospective Technological Studies, DG Joint Research Centre (JRC IPTS), European Commission used it to run customised, high-performance virtual machines (VMs).

Its innovative approach to desktop virtualisation helped the centre achieve infrastructure flexibility, user satisfaction and energy savings.

This approach prompted a panel of expert judges to select JRC IPTS as the winner of the Best Desktop Virtualisation Project category at VMworld Europe 2011.

JRC IPTS supports the development of European Union policies and works as an intermediary between the socioeconomic aspects of an issue and the science and technology involved.

Its researchers develop and use economic models to support the policy-making process.

These models are theoretical representations of economic processes that can be tuned to respond to particular hypotheses through the use of variables, parameters and factual data from various sources.

But in computing terms, “these models are encoded algorithms, for which a variety of programming languages are needed,” explained Javier Alba, JRC IPTS’s information systems manager.

The researchers need highly computation-intensive applications. “These applications are not commercial but customised in-house applications built over heterogeneous platforms like Windows, Linux, etc, and have very restrictive system requirements such as Windows XP 32-bit,” said José María Torres Barrado, the institute’s hosting and IT infrastructure manager.

Why desktop virtualisation?
In the past, such work was supported with the use of workstations equipped with all the hardware and software needed to run model simulations. But the institute had encountered difficulties in terms of installation, configuration and deployment. “Also, with new hardware requirements, the workstations quickly became obsolete and unusable,” Torres Barrado said. “They couldn’t offer the required guarantees for flexibility and performance.”
When JRC IPTS management decided to make the institute a centre of reference for modelling -- a shift that was sure to increase demand for computing power and storage -- it brought an even greater need for the desktop virtualisation project.

“The main challenge was to prove that virtualisation was a valid technology for high-performance computing and to have this approach accepted by our users.”

José María Torres Barrado, hosting and IT infrastructure manager, JRC IPTS

Initially, the IT team served these needs with dedicated workstations in user offices. But as researchers started requesting additional resources, negative consequences surfaced, such as increases in temperature and noise.

“Also, as European Commission’s procurement processes are not agile enough to quickly buy more RAM, more CPUs, more disk space, and licensing, we faced a big challenge,” Alba said. “We wanted a single, sustainable architecture that would solve all problems.”

The IT team had two objectives in mind for the virtualisation project server consolidation and desktop virtualisation for economic models and other scientific applications.

While server consolidation was a standard virtualisation project, the desktop virtualisation task progressed as a parallel project branch, including assessment of several hardware platforms and different VMware versions.

“This project branch had the characteristics of a research project rather than a regular infrastructure one,” said Luca Minghini, its Windows and virtualisation system engineer.

For desktop virtualisation, the strategy was to lease servers so that these can be renewed following the CPU life cycles of the manufacturer, but then to buy storage (disks and backup devices). “This allows us to offer high performance to our users on a continuous basis,” Alba said.

Challenges of the desktop virtualisation project

Using virtualisation for scientific purpose hasn’t been easy. “Ours was an uncommon way to use virtualisation because it has not been used with the purpose to consolidate systems but with a view to run custom virtual machines at the best performance,” Torres Barrado said. “The main challenge was to prove that virtualisation was a valid technology for high-performance computing and to have this approach accepted by our users.”

But benefits have abounded. The IT team has built VMs that do not exist in the real world. For instance, it has built Windows XP machines (as some modelling applications have specific system requirements such as Windows XP 32-bit) with 36 GB of RAM and 32 CPUs organised in two sockets to deliver higher performance. It used VMware’s vSphere 5 beta for this purpose over an Intel 75xx family server.

The team collaborated with researchers to optimise the performance of every model by identifying requirements, creating prototypes and then testing for the number of cores, memory size and processor type.

“This testing phase often creates synergies that allow researchers to improve their own models,” Minghini said.

The team also collaborated with vendors. “This helped us create advanced laboratories using Xeon 56xx even before it was released to the market as well as 75xx processors,” Torres Barrado said. “Participating in the vSphere5 beta programme was another advantage.”

The judges of the Best of VMworld Europe 2011 awards were impressed with how the team engaged with the key stakeholders and vendors to ensure customer satisfaction.

Improving efficiencies for scientific researchers

Virtualisation also allows it to run Linux and Windows systems over the same hardware platform. This means the team can offer a great level of flexibility for the centre’s scientific projects.

A main reason for the desktop virtualisation project’s success is that users did not have to learn anything new. “They continue working in the same platforms they are used to and [require] no learning of new methods and languages or recoding of scientific applications,” Alba said.

Researchers can also do parallel calculation of the same model, saving time to deliver the final results.

The project has allowed JRC IPTS to offer a consolidated platform that is integrated with its corporate infrastructure. The result: technical and financial sustainability, scalability, flexibility, and reliability resilience.

The IT team can now flex resources up and down based on the requirement. “We know that the execution of the scientific models has either periods of high demand or periods of total inactivity,” Minghini said. “With VMware DRS [Distributed Resource Scheduler] and Power Management functionalities, we can allocate resources to get best performance as needed and save power when there is not activity, delivering green IT.”

“The infrastructure paradigm has shifted from a standalone model to shared resources, bringing in economies of scale and energy savings,” Torres Barrado said, summarising the project.

The team is able to “decouple” the procurement and provisioning processes. This means users do not have to wait until the required resources are acquired to run their experiments.

As a result of the project, researchers benefit from reduced simulation times of between 50% and 80%.

The judges concluded that this project was a classic case of “the customer teaching VMware a thing or two about how its own product can be tweaked for the special load VDI places,” as one judge put it.

But lessons were learnt: “If given a chance again, we would not have used blade servers, because they are not flexible and powerful enough for our intensive computing requirements,” Minghini said.

Snapshot of desktop virtualisation benefits for the IT team
  • The project required zero learning for users, as they continue working in the same platforms they are accustomed to (no learning curve for new methods and no recoding of scientific applications).
  • Sharing resources enabled the institute to achieve economies of scale and energy savings (green computing).
  • The project centralised backup management of desktops;
  • The project created connections among IT staff, researchers and developers as well as between IT staff and manufacturers.
  • User satisfaction improved because of performance enhancements, flexibility and greater speed when addressing JRC IPTS researchers’ IT needs.
  • The project brought easy and quick deployment of a large number of computers (i.e. training) using cloning.
  • The project enabled scalability and accommodated new hardware requirements (vCPU, vRAM, disk space and other configurations) easily
  • The project optimised software license usage for scientific applications
  • It allowed the institute to improve policy modelling support.

Click here to find out about other winners of the Best of VMworld Europe 2011 user awards.

Check out all our VMworld Europe 2011 conference coverage here.

Archana Venkatraman is the site editor for SearchVirtualDataCentre.co.UK. Write to her at [email protected].

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