Palmer's College scores on virtualisation, data centre consolidation

Palmer's College's virtualisation and data centre consolidation project did not just improve IT efficiency and scalability, but also saves on data centre cooling costs.

From 20+ servers in 2009 to just three servers now, a virtualisation and data centre consolidation project at Palmer’s College helped improve IT efficiency and save on data centre cooling costs.

When the 300-year old educational institution in Essex received an interest-free government loan towards its IT infrastructure in November 2009, the IT team wanted to use the money wisely. “We examined our systems and found that our 20-odd IBM servers were ten years old and we were running out of [computing] space,” said the college’s IT manager Dan Byne.

That was not all. The institution’s storage requirement was rising as it had to retain students’ records to comply with UK data retention regulations. “With 2,500 students and 250 staff, it was becoming a management challenge,” Byne said. “In addition, our data centre power and cooling costs were high, and buying and implementing new servers was becoming a headache.”

Server virtualisation -- not all about cost
From zero virtualisation in 2009, Palmer’s College today is 70% virtualised. Its data centre now has three VMware vSphere 4.1 servers. The IT team assessed several virtualisation platforms including open source ones.

“Cost wasn’t the only deciding factor,” said Byne. “We had to look at the project from a strategic viewpoint.” He explained that although open source platforms were cheaper upfront, the consulting fee and training costs were adding up. “Besides, we were using vSphere 3.5 as a testing box and many in the IT team were familiar with the platform and didn’t require much training.”

Ease of implementation and vSphere’s [Distributed Resource Scheduler] DRS feature were other factors that influenced the team’s decision. VSphere 4.1 introduces improved VM DRS "affinity rules" that help control where a virtual machine (VM) runs to specific groups of ESX hosts within a cluster. DRS also balances computing workloads with available resources in a virtualised environment.

Palmer's College's virtualisation timeline

From zero virtualisation in 2009, the educational institution is 70% virtualised today. It is aiming for 95% virtualised infrastructure.

After consolidating servers, the team turned its attention to storage capacity which was under considerable strain amid growing volumes of data. The IT pros wanted a virtual storage infrastructure that would offer high performance and would be highly scalable and easy to implement. In addition, the new systems would need to be in place within a year to fit in with the terms of the government loan.

The institution deployed Coraid Ethernet SAN as part of its large data centre virtualisation project. The team selected two Coraid EtherDrive SRX3200s and two EtherDrive VSX storage virtualisation appliances after looking at several products including EMC Clariions and Celerras.

“These products were easier to implement and were cheaper than EMC products,” said Byne. “It helped us create a ‘no single point of failure’ system, with 10 gigabit Ethernet for improved performance.” He added that Coraid’s VSX appliances help the IT team to mirror the data and should one appliance fail another one can take over seamlessly. “While we have not had an appliance fail yet, we switched a unit off to test the taking over,” he said.

Virtualisation and data centre consolidation project yields results

“Cost savings has been the biggest advantage of our virtualisation and data centre consolidation project,” said Byne. “Previously, implementing new servers used to take a couple of days and caused longer downtime. Now adding servers takes just half an hour.”

The end users including students and staff are also benefitting from the new IT infrastructure with faster access to data, and the data centre benefits from fewer physical servers and lower cooling costs.

As for the benefits of the new storage systems, Byne said that the units have curbed its needs for additional IT staff. “The storage infrastructure is much easier to manage now,” he said.

Costs are also much more manageable. “In the old infrastructure, we were spending about £6,000 a year on disaster recovery just on standby; on average £9,000 was spent on new servers every year,” he said, “and there were high cooling costs because of distributive IT systems.”

Consolidation has helped the department save money on disaster recovery (DR), server replacement and most importantly on power and cooling.

For instance, Palmer’s College is now saving 19% of its capital budget based on the DR and the new servers that it no longer has to buy every year. “We also save roughly another 80% on power compared to what we would be using if our servers were not virtualised,” said Byne. The college also has 44 VMs running on three physical hosts cutting energy use.

One of the challenges Byne and his team faced was to convince management of the advantages of virtualisation and data centre consolidation. “It was a big investment and it was tough to get the management to agree,” he said, noting that savings projections should recover the project’s initial investment in about five years.

So is Byne eyeing 100% virtualisation?

“We will continue with our virtualisation plans as our Internet gateway server and SQL-based server are not virtualised yet,” he said. “We aim to be about 95% virtualised because we have a couple of servers which cannot be virtualised because they are resource-intensive.”

The team is also implementing desktop virtualisation. “We realise that virtualisation is the way forward and having seen benefits on the server side, we are keen to implement VDI,” he added. The institution is implementing VMware View 4.5 that will run 70 machines.

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

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