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Virtually there

Virtually there

By rearranging your servers differently and linking them together, you can get more out of them. The process, known as 'virtualisation', is hailed by some as the next big thing. But how does it work in reality?

Air New Zealand says it reduces costs across the organisation. An IT manager at the Manukau Institute of Technology says it eases headaches better than aspirin.

The Royal Foundation for the Blind says it takes away the power from vendors and puts it back into the hands of the chief information officer.

These organisations are all referring to virtualisation - which Gartner says is one of the most disruptive technologies to hit the enterprise desktop.

Gartner says with virtualisation, the enterprise desktop would be "revolutionised" by decoupling the PC hardware and software. This would allow multiple operating systems to run simultaneously on a single desktop.

Gartner says this would lead to more efficient outsourcing, less maintenance requirements, and greater control to IT departments.

IBM says virtualisation will help organisations consolidate a large number of individual small machines on one large server, easing manageability and more efficiently using system resources by allowing them to be prioritised and allocated to the workloads needing them most at any given time.

"Virtualisation uses the available physical resources as a shared pool to emulate missing physical resources."

Microsoft is joining the fray, claiming that unlike other IT trends or crazes, virtualisation actually lives up to its promises. Bruce Chamberlain, territory technical specialist for Microsoft New Zealand, explains typically, one server would handle one application. But this means running it at 5 instead of 50 per cent efficiency.

But with virtualisation, an organisation will require fewer but more powerful servers. You can connect them differently, to perform "tricks" using software, which then "thinks" it has the hardware to do the work, Chamberlain continues.

With fewer servers, you save space, use less power, and require less maintenance.

With the entry of major players, such as Microsoft with its Virtual Server, the technology is expected to become mainstream in less than five years.

Across New Zealand, several organisa-tions are already deploying virtualisation projects at a test stage. In Australia, ZDNet recently reported about an IBRS survey which found half of Australian companies frequently use virtualisation to execute workloads. Twenty per cent said they use the technology occasionally.

Virtualisation is also moving into government, with the Inland Revenue appointing IBM to develop a virtualisation strategy for the department, with implementation due after mid-2006. "What we have seen is a proliferation of mid-range servers at the IRD.

We want to see a consolidation through virtualisation, also benefits around quicker provision, to position ourselves for high availability, quicker time to market, much more flexibility and better hardware capacity utilisation," says chief information officer Ross Hughson.

Air New Zealand flies first

Air New Zealand adopted the technology since 2000, and sees it as central to its strategy, with a variety of projects likely over the next 18 months, says service delivery manager - processing services Kevin Maloney.

The projects span networks, storage and servers. The airline is evaluating virtualisation technologies as they emerge, "Where they fit in with our current technology strategies, have appropriate risk profile and enable us to deliver increasing value we identify the business benefits and complete a proof of concept," explains Maloney.

The airline consolidated its Intel servers late in 2002 by migrating a number of legacy Windows NT Servers onto VMWare, which also supports its Linux-based applications.

Last year, Air New Zealand completed two storage virtualisation projects - implementing an HDS TagmaStore for SAN virtualisation and implementing NetApp FlexClones to provide production-sized test and quality assurance environments without adding extra storage.

Maloney says where appropriate, virtualisation reduces IT costs while improving service. Each initiative is evaluated on its merits and supported by an ROI analysis.

Virtualisation, he says, has reduced data centre footprint, improved infrastructure utilisations, reduced the cost of infrastructure management, supported increased process and task automation; and lowered capital and lease lease costs.

The airline uses VMware because it works with Linux, and having IBM as supplier was a good fit with its existing outsource relationships. The airline encountered two major challenges during the server virtualisation/consolidation project.

"At the technical level, the main challenges were migrating the existing systems across, understanding what consolidation rations were optimal for our environment and ensuring target systems where appropriate candidates for virtualisation.

"At the customer level, managing expectations and communicating impacts were the challenges. The project touched a number of business units and their systems," says Maloney.

These were overcome by phasing in development and testing and capturing lessons learnt through trial and error.

The first phase of the Intel virtualisation was completed to plan, but the network evolves as other virtual servers are deployed or decommissioned.

With hindsight, Maloney says nothing would have been done differently due to the maturity and availability of offerings at the time. As the airline further upgrades infrastructure, he expects further benefits from virtualisation, particularly as the technology is evolving rapidly.

Infrastructure management is a notable area requiring attention and the airline will focus on improving capacity and performance management processes over the next six months.

"Virtualisation is more than a 'project' or any one 'product'," Maloney explains. "It's an evolving principle within infrastructure management. When deployed for the right reasons it can support meeting the challenge of delivering improved service outcomes at continually reducing cost.

"Key considerations need to reflect around how your organisation can effect the process changes required, manage customer expectations and mitigate any adverse impacts on other components within the infrastructure system. Focus on the quick wins, manage risk appropriately and capture the lessons," he says.

Towards business continuity

The Royal New Zealand Foundation of the Blind saw virtualisation as a way of improv-ing business continuity while boosting business flexibility, says IS manager John Holley.

In November 2004, the foundation moved from an NT4 environment to Microsoft Exchange 2003 and consolidated servers at the same time.

Holley says the charity does not have the funds to provide extra equipment and can not afford to have redundant servers sitting around. "You use existing technology smarter. Before, each server was backed up separately, each had its own UPS and network individually," he says.

"With virtualisation, we are able to provide a single tape back-up environment. We back up terabytes of data each night, using dual path fibre, dual path ethernet and dual UPS for all those servers in a critical environment."

If a server fails, the use of VMotion software allows the charity to move from one virtual server to another, even while the virtual server is running.

Holley says VMware was chosen because of these functions and has better managing and monitoring tools.

"There's also a huge development community out there providing tools to assist in the running of VMware," he continues.

The foundation only has Holley and a part-time staff-member working on IT so it is essential for them to manage the servers from one console.

"The amount of 'touch' on the servers has dropped to almost nothing so we ended up with a highly robust environment. We halved the physical cost of the servers for the organisation and have flexibility that we would not have with physical servers," he continues.

Holley sees no downside from virtualisation other than people being risk averse with a new technology. The technology works, he says, and organisations looking to implement it should "virtualise the stuff you care about most because that gives you the best ROI straight away".

Holley also says virtualisation is so straightforward that it gives power back to the CIOs from the vendors. The organisation gives one server a function, like file and print, so if a function fails, it is obvious which vendor is at fault and they cannot blame each other, he states.

The University of Auckland began its virtualisation program in 2004, with firewall virtualisation, followed by storage virtualisation early in 2005 and compute platform virtualisation in mid-2005.

Last year, the university overhauled its infrastructure, and some faculties had already installed VMware.

"We were grinding to a halt with managing the number of physical servers we had to look after. We virtualised the firewalls due to the complex set and scale of rule sets needed for our data centre network. We virtualised the storage to give us maximum flexibility in selecting vendors while also preparing for disaster recovery and a new data centre," says enterprise architect manager Tim Chaffe.

The university used Logical (now IBM) for the firewalls, IBM for the storage and Computerland (Now Gen-i) for the VMWare.

Each vendor was selected based on RFP response, primarily focusing on their understanding of the problem and willingness to partner in delivering services with the university.

"The primary issue was the scale of the migration we faced. We had years of legacy to unravel," he explains.

The project covered more than 300 servers. Chaffe says more than 120 servers have been converted, and the team is working on 70 more. The rest will be converted depending on the opportunity and business priority.

"We have to migrate the hosts onto the IBM SVC (San Volume Controller) as well as migrate hosts into their appropriate security domain (virtual firewall)," he continues.

Auckland University faces issues regarding vendor support and certification, primarily between the operating systems and the SVC.

Chaffe says the project was implemented in two phases - the first was establishing the capability; the second was migrating existing systems across.

"We've completed the first for all of the projects and are well into the migrations. We're seeing a huge improvement in productivity with the VMware. These changes are foundational and we're beginning to see the opportunities they provide in helping us with disaster recovery," he says.

The conversion means server projects can be completed in a day, instead of several weeks.

Manukau Institute of Technology also began installing virtualisation technology in 2004 when it began using it for testing applications. It had some 70 servers arranged in small Citrix farms and wanted to expand its network.

MIT found the VMware GSX software was not powerful enough to cope with the needs of a system serving 22,000 students. A colleague who attended the VMWorld trade show recommended moving to VMware's new and more powerful ESX software.

They tried the software on entry level IBM servers and found it worked well. The institute, however, eventually settled for "better value" Intel-based servers from Sun, particularly when Sun said it would support VMware.

By Christmas 2005, MIT completed the virtualisation of its network, including its storage area network.

MIT systems specialist Daniel Kenna says he can now build virtual machines faster than physical ones, and the VMtool makes monitoring easier. "Virtualisation made our servers very reliable and easy to get out of a hole by using the non-persistent mode. We have power savings. We have been able to scrap more than 100 servers in our server room. We can centralise better.

Because of the non-persistence mode, we can put web servers, Citrix servers into this mode and it allows us to properly change controls with the ability to fall back onto our good, known state if required."

He says the old hardware is also performing 20 to 30 per cent better and the ability to reallocate resources "on the fly" has also helped.

Kenna says anyone looking at virtualisation should "go the whole nine yards" and use all the tools available, including VMotion and the SAN.

"When it's together like that, it's a phenomenal product. It's the way of the future and the amount of stress it's relieved from me is amazing!"

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