Oct 26 2009

Virtualized Blades Boost Productivity

The Center for Urban Community Services conquers growing pains with VMware vSphere 4.0 and an HP BladeSystem.

Virtualized Blades Boost Productivity

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At the Center for Urban Community Services, rapid growth was taxing IT applications so much that strained servers were causing productivity problems for workers. To solve its system woes -- and set itself up for future cost savings -- the nonprofit agency rolled out VMware vSphere on a new HP BladeSystem blade server.

CUCS, a human services organization focused on ending homelessness and providing opportunities for low-income individuals and families, has discovered that in this dismal economy its services are more necessary than ever. The agency has about a dozen locations throughout New York City, and that number is increasing, says IT Director Lou Alleluia.

Workers at the agency's various sites access the clinical database, office automation and custom software over a network through Citrix XenApp application virtualization. "We watched the number of connections go up on a daily basis," Alleluia says. "That ultimately caused serious productivity problems for the people in the agency."

Lou Alleluia and Tina Verras of Center for Urban Community Services, New York

Credit: Andrew Kist

Trouble began once the number of user application sessions climbed past 250 and the agency's standard 1U servers couldn't handle the load. "As soon as the connection level got to the high 300s, the help desk lit up like a Christmas tree," says Tina Verras, network/systems administrator for CUCS.

Not only did the server virtualization and blade server rollout "stop the bleeding," says Alleluia, but he anticipates server consolidation will reduce the organization's power consumption and slash collocation costs.

Many organizations turn to server virtualization for just that reason, says Chris Wolf, a senior analyst with the Burton Group. "The primary drivers are reductions in operational and capital costs," he says. Paring down hardware in the data center in turn lowers the power and cooling costs.

Banking on Blades

CUCS chose to deploy an 8-slot HP c3000 chassis filled with HP ProLiant BL460c server blades, along with VMware vSphere 4.0 server virtualization. "We have five blades deployed and expect to fill it in the near future," says Verras.

Aside from an overtaxed server farm, the agency's edge switches at headquarters and core switches at its collocation facility were underpowered and unmanageable. CUCS replaced them with HP ProCurve chassis switches. "By upgrading our core switches, we were able to have the HP BladeSystem and the HP ProCurve switch chassis communicate at a much higher speed than would be possible with 10/100/1000 switch ports," Alleluia says. "This is important to avoid bottlenecks when putting a bunch of virtual servers in one physical blade chassis."

With the new BladeSystem hardware and upgraded network, there's no holding back. "Our employees are actively using the new system," Verras says. She's watched the number of concurrent application sessions go as high as 620 without a problem. The dramatic increase in usage "led us to conclude that people were holding back on using the system because it wasn't working well for them," she says.

Both the BladeSystem and VMware have eased the administrative burden on Alleluia and Verras. "The VMware console with VMware server is a huge boon in manageability that we didn't have before," Verras adds. The virtual servers also offer redundancy and the ability to shift servers on the fly to accommodate spikes in application loads.

As CUCS continues to collapse physical servers, the nonprofit reaps energy efficiency. The agency's IBM servers each consume about 380 watts of power, whereas the BladeSystem uses about 1,200 watts in total. Once the IBM servers are retired, Alleluia expects to see significant electrical savings.

What's more, reducing rack footprint cuts the organization's collocation costs. "We could save money or, if we want, we could possibly upgrade to a more robust collocation facility without having to spend extra," the IT director says. He hopes to cut the agency's space consumption by half.

Ben Berry, CIO for the Oregon Department of Transportation, has witnessed similar results by deploying VMware on IBM BladeCenter servers. His organization houses its servers in the state data center and is charged back for services.

In the past, the Oregon agency might run a single application on one server; with virtualization, Berry hopes to improve server density by 30 percent to 40 percent by boosting the number of applications per server. "Now four to five apps occupy a virtual blade," Berry says. "With this shared services approach, we've reduced our electricity requirements significantly."

Deployment Pointers

Organizations embarking on server virtualization and blade deployment need to plan carefully. "You have to reach a certain size before it becomes a practical thing to implement," says Verras. "Once you occupy a rack, it's time to start thinking about collapsing.

Alleluia points out that if you build something well, people are going to use it. He recommends future-proofing the investment by building in ample capacity.

CUCS workers are certainly satisfied with the back-end improvements, and the only thing they notice is better performance. That's the way Verras likes it. "My goal at the end of the day is when the users sit at their PCs and terminals, there's not a thought in their head that it's not going to work."

Head in(to) the Clouds

Lou Alleluia, director of IT for the Center for Urban Community Services, is open to cloud computing. He chose VMware vSphere in part to position the agency for cloud computing.

With a private cloud, organizations can obtain many of the operational benefits of cloud computing, such as user self-service, mobility and system portability, while maintaining control over how data is partitioned and secured," says Chris Wolf, a senior analyst with Gartner Group.

Ben Berry, CIO for the Oregon Department of Transportation, says the state is hosting a facilitated workshop to consider adopting a software-as-a-service strategy to augment traditional application service models. "In the past, we've always acquired programmers and packaged software," he says. "SaaS might be a way of acquiring the added applications capacity we'll need in the future and have them hosted offsite."