Five Budget-Boosting Technologies

Organizations embrace server and storage innovations that can help cut costs and simplify management.
De-duplication eases the management of backups, says Bernie Robichau, network systems administrator for the South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism.

Stretching IT dollars isn’t a new concept for state and local organizations. Some have to contend with flat budgets and manage to support ever-increasing numbers of citizens.

What changes, though, are the emerging technologies administrators rely on to squeeze more from their budgets: server virtualization, data de-duplication, thin clients, blade servers and storage virtualization.

1) Server Virtualization

The city of Memphis’ IT department was able to reduce the amount it spends on physical servers and also create a more nimble organization with server virtualization, divvying up physical servers into isolated server environments — often called virtual machines.

The city made the switch to VMware about six months ago, although the planning was in the works for a total of 18 months, says Greg Smith, data center manager for the Tennessee city. The city invested about $288,000 in the software. Thanks to future savings on hardware, data center power and cooling, and network and storage infrastructure, Smith estimates the three-year total cost of ownership to be about $677,354, as compared with $719,538 without VMware.

Smith’s IT team is now supporting 60 VMware virtual machines on servers running ESX Server software. Before, the city had five physical servers taking up 10U to 20U in a rack. Collapsing that has reduced the number of physical boxes and provided an architecture that’s less demanding, more agile and easier to manage, Smith says. Now when the city has a new project, it doesn’t have to go back and tell a department it will need an additional $10,000 for a new server, which was the case with its previous environment, Smith says.

“Now we can say, guess what, you don’t need that physical server. I still have to buy a license for the operating system, but there’s no cost for a new box or cabling,” Smith says. And it takes only about 10 minutes to set up a new virtual machine, he says. Before, setting up a new server took a full day. This frees up staff members to perform other tasks such as troubleshoot problems and proactively monitor the data center.

2) Data De-Duplication

A little over a year ago, South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism started looking at ways to improve and invest in its backup infrastructure, says Bernie Robichau, network systems administrator at the SCPRT in Columbia.

That’s when Robichau discovered a data de-duplication appliance. The Data Domain DD430, which retails for about $45,000, paid for itself by reducing the number of tapes the South Carolina agency requires as well as administrative overhead to manage them. SCPRT has saved $2,500 to $3,000 on its semiannual tape purchases and at least five hours in labor per week since deploying the appliance, Robichau says.

Data de-duping reduces the size of data sets users back up by capturing only the bits changed since the last backup. “It never backs up a bit you previously backed up,” Robichau says. For example, if a user modifies a 2-gigabyte file, the changes might amount to 50 kilobytes. A traditional backup would rewrite the entire 2GB file, whereas the Data Domain appliance needs to store only that 50KB, he says.

The upshot for the South Carolina department is reduced storage needs. Robichau says his RAID array on the storage area network previously filled up in a week or two from backup traffic, forcing him to migrate data to tape. By de-duping, he doesn’t need to write incremental backups to tape because months of data can be stored online for fast retrieval.

What’s more, this boosts productivity and frees the administrator up to work on other IT projects. “We’re dealing with 12 tapes a month, compared to 40 or 50 tapes a month,” he says. “It is a much simpler system to administer, and it therefore allows a smaller staff to work more efficiently.”

3) Thin Clients

When it came time to replace aging notebook computers used by patrol officers in the field, the Marysville Police Department in California decided mobile thin clients offered a cost-effective solution.

Police had been using notebook computers over a spotty 802.11b/g wireless network to file reports via a Citrix computer-aided dispatch/report management system application, says Lt. Mike Kostas, support division commander for Marysville. The Citrix app worked great, but the problem was the notebooks were expensive for the small department to manage and posed a security risk if the devices were lost or stolen.

Last year, Marysville chose to deploy 32 Neoware m100 mobile thin clients. The devices cost about $700 to $1,000 each, compared with $3,000 to $5,000 for a notebook, Kostas says. Connectivity to patrol cars is provided via Verizon EVDO cards, which offer 400 kilobit-per-second to 600Kbps access around town. The devices also include an Ethernet port and built-in 802.11 card, letting officers write up reports back in the office or at home.

“With no hard drive or fan, the Neoware m100 has no moving parts, allowing it to operate with fewer points of failure than a traditional [notebook],” Kostas says. In addition to the durability that’s needed for use in a patrol car, the thin clients are also easier to manage.

When an officer leaves the force, “I can reimage one of these thin clients in five minutes,” he says. In contrast, Kostas previously had to pay technicians $100 an hour or more to troubleshoot notebook computers. And deploying meant spending hours loading software on each computer individually.

Kostas says he uses the savings to buy more IT equipment.

4) Blade Servers

The city of Richmond, Va., started deploying HP and IBM server blades throughout its data center toward the end of 2006. Gene Doody, CIO and director of IT for the city, says the city’s previous environment no longer met its needs.

The municipality has two Hewlett-Packard and one IBM blade chassis populated with 40 blades. Doody says blade servers don’t necessarily carry lower price tags than traditional servers do, but they generate total-cost-of-ownership savings. What’s more, blade servers take up a lot less space, are cleaner environmentally and can simplify server consolidation, he says.

“We focused on IBM and HP because they can both support mixed operating systems within one chassis,” Doody says. “That’s a huge cost savings because it allows us to provide significantly increased server availability as infrastructure hardware is shared and the total amount of servers are reduced.”

This feature also provides the enhanced capability to cluster servers for high availability applications because the data and network connectivity paths are common for all blade servers in the chassis. Cost savings also result from common management software for the blades residing in the chassis.

5) Storage Virtualization

Virtualization is on the minds of 75 percent of state and local government IT executives when it comes to reducing costs and streamlining operations, says Chris Dixon, manager of state and local industry analysis for market researcher Input of Reston, Va.

That’s exactly the case for Richmond. The city has an extensive virtualized IBM Shark storage area network configured to provide a common pool of storage. The city uses three types of disks: Serial ATA disks for low-priority data, midrange disks for data that requires near-real-time access and Shark disks for critical applications demanding immediate access at all times, Doody says.

One of the biggest benefits of storage virtualization is the ability to quickly bring data back online, says Doody. “Time is of the utmost importance during a disaster.” With tapes, you need a recovery server running the same OS as the original server to restore the data on the tape, Doody says. A virtual machine doesn’t require that.

Although Input’s Dixon forecasts state and local government IT spending to increase at a steady pace over the next four years, most users are concerned with getting more bang for their buck.

Key Considerations

If you’re thinking about implementing cost-saving technologies, keep these things in mind:

  • Get a champion. According to Memphis Data Center Manager Greg Smith, without his CIO’s support behind his VMware recommendation, it wouldn’t have gone far. “We brought it to him and he trusted in us and we made it happen.”
  • Cost-saving technologies are not for every environment. For example, limitations of the physical I/O intensity in virtualized servers make them poorly suited for applications such as databases or mail servers, Smith says.
  • Consider planning to use the savings you generate to fund future phases of implementation. The South Carolina Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism will use the cost savings generated by data de-duplication to fund replication software for disaster recovery.
Sep 26 2007