The Reach of Virtualization
In search of cost-effective, bullet-proof failover capabilities and more efficient use of its IT resources, Pennsylvania's Washington County turned to server virtualization.
Don Cortese, the county's assistant director of information technology, says the project encompasses the full scope of the county's IT infrastructure, from the administration offices, health center and correctional facility to the sheriff's office, tax and deeds offices and some applications used by the county court system.
The project started with Washington County's e911 center, which implemented a VMware Infrastructure 3 upgrade to handle more efficiently the 800 to 1,000 calls the center receives daily to dispatch fire, police and emergency medical services. The new VMware environment consolidates servers onto fewer, more efficient machines, while providing bulletproof redundancy when needed.
Photo Credit: Annie O'Neill
Additionally, because a virtual machine can be deployed without adding an actual physical server, it's more malleable if an emergency strikes. A VM can be redeployed on an ESX server almost instantly.
All of those qualities appealed to a wider audience in the county government's infrastructure. Seeing the success of the e911 center's migration and the greater efficiencies VMware offered, Cortese wanted to bring similar results to the county's administrative side.
Ultimately, he installed five VMware ESX hosts that run a dozen virtual servers, which helped eliminate some physical servers that had reached end of life. The HP blade servers supporting the VMware environment are all in the county's data center and are attached to a 40 terabyte SAN.
The project had been spurred not only by the better economies offered by VMware, but also by disaster recovery concerns, he says. The county's data center had experienced power outages that had precipitated application failures on physical servers in the county's data center.
VMware offered a better way to handle such emergencies, he says, through a high availability feature that automatically restarts the system on another host machine if one host fails.
"It's no secret that government agencies strapped for resources turn to virtualization," says Phil Hochmuth, a senior analyst at Yankee Group. "Virtualization has proved to be one of the greatest cost reduction drivers in IT in recent years," he says.
Virtualization can reduce capital costs by as much as 60%.
VMware's ability to support aging and proprietary servers also spurred the decision by New Mexico's Bernalillo County to implement the technology.
The county installed VMware two years ago, says CIO Paul Roybal.
"We had a number of 'pizza box' servers and servers that were no longer supported by their vendors," he says. What's more, his IT staff of five was reduced to three, while demands from roughly 2,000 employees in the county's administrative offices continued to increase. With VMware, Roybal has been able to support those orphaned servers while implementing other virtual servers, reducing the maintenance burden on a shrinking staff.
Bernalillo County has virtualized almost 75 percent of its servers, converting 50 physical servers to seven, saving about $350,000, Roybal says.
Five tips to consider before moving forward with server virtualization.
· Plan for up-front costs. The typical five-year replacement cycle for old physical servers will make way for an initial investment in new blade servers and software licenses to establish a virtualization environment environment. Once the virtualized environment is established, costs for replacement servers will decline.
· Focus on training. Arrange for training of systems administration staff at the outset of the project.
· Deploy virtual machines efficiently. Because establishing a virtual server is far simpler than buying and installing a physical server, virtual machines can proliferate rapidly. Look for the most efficient way to implement virtual servers to prevent server sprawl.
· Think about software licenses. Be prepared to buy more software licenses as virtual servers multiply.
· Watch for vendor-specific applications. Some of these apps may need special attention to get up and running on a virtualized server.