Successful Server Virtualization

Ohio offers tips for defining the opportunity and implementing the initiative.

Server virtualization enables Ohio's agencies to do more with less -- much more with much less. The state's Office of Information Technology reaps more efficiency, agility and resiliency, with less hardware, cost and energy.

The reason behind implementing server virtualization and other cost-saving strategies was straightforward. Budget shortfalls required changes in the way IT in Ohio is done and run. And because IT is so central to accomplishing agency missions, those changes had to be well-chosen and backed by strong leadership, cross-agency collaboration and careful planning.

When planning for server virtualization, other states may want to keep Ohio's lessons learned in mind: Gather good data on which to base problem definition and requirements; put in place expert support to help agencies plan, prepare, test and implement virtualized servers; prepare for cultural changes that may be required; recognize that virtualization requires different engineering skills; and take advantage of cost-saving tools and programs such as enterprise contracts.

Plotting the Solution

Before you can plan a solution to a problem, you have to define it, and that's exactly what Ohio's IT leaders did.

To understand the exact size and shape of the virtualization opportunity across the enterprise, state CIO Sam Orth asked agencies, boards and commissions to run the VMware Capacity Planner tool to collect server data.

"The Capacity Planner data clearly supported a statewide initiative to replace costly physical servers with more cost-effective virtual servers," Orth says. "Ohio government could dramatically cut information technology maintenance, hardware and energy expenses, and in the process acquire the agility to respond quickly to future challenges and the needs of businesses and citizens."

The Office of Information Technology uses the tool quarterly to measure virtualization progress and upcoming needs.

Orth purchased professional serv­ice credits from VMware to provide agencies with technical account manager support. The technical account manager provides planning support to establish a strategy, architecture and best practices for a virtualization program. Since April 2009, the technical account manager has conducted:

  • 94 planning activities with 26 agencies
  • 10 proof-of-concept activities for six agencies
  • 36 presentations for 20 agencies
  • 47 problem-resolution activities for 21 agencies

The CIO established a help desk in the Enterprise IT Architecture and Policy group to facilitate the server virtualization initiative. The help desk assists agencies throughout the state by providing information on virtualization and on the technical account manager program, instructions for ordering software and services, and assistance in filling out and submitting the necessary procurement paperwork.

The cultural change brought about by virtualization requires its own kind of support, centered on helping the enterprise think differently about IT. Orth points out that everyone has been used to requesting a physical server for each application -- that was the norm for some 20 years. Running multiple virtual servers on a single piece of hardware represents a different way of managing and thinking about IT resources for IT practitioners and users alike, he says.

"We had to understand the requirements and implications of virtualization from each point of view, and then enable and foster the project throughout our environment," Orth says.

Indeed, engineering virtual environments differs substantially from engineering physical server environments. You may need to bring in an engineer on a temporary or full-time basis to add this expertise to your team. Training existing staff can help close this gap too, but consider this initially rather than after the fact.

New issues such as virtual server sprawl, server and application lifecycles, and storage considerations present new planning and engineering challenges. When you drive higher server utilization, additional engineering issues emerge. Some examples include storage performance and network connections between servers and your storage environment.

Cost Savings Abound

By last October, a total of 29 state agencies had spent $3.7 million for ­VMware software, maintenance and services through an enterprise contract with ­VMware established by the Ohio Board of ­Regents and administered by The Ohio State University.

Without the enterprise contract, state agencies would have had to buy VMware products and services via State Term Schedule contracts. Comparable purchases for state agencies at standard State Term Schedule prices would have cost $7.6 million, representing a cost-avoidance savings for state agencies of $3.9 million, or 52 percent. For the same period, 66 Ohio political subdivisions made more than $1.1 million in purchases through the enterprise contract, similarly saving $1.2 million, or 52 percent.

In addition to cost savings related to software licensing, maintenance and services, power consumption has been reduced. "This has been particularly important in the state's primary data center because the uninterruptible power supply is near its limit," Orth says.

A recent virtualization project at the data center consolidated 214 physical servers into 20 virtual servers. A total of 194 physical servers were removed -- a 90 percent reduction.

"This has resulted in a reduction of approximately 106 kilowatts in power used, which translates into $255,360 in energy savings over the next five years," Orth says.

Another benefit is that the local electric utility offered incentives for power usage reduction through its gridSMART program. Ohio's server virtualization initiative earned the state a $31,450 power rebate through this program. The program recently added rebates for desktop virtualization, which is another technology the state is pilot testing.

Conquering Budget Challenges Through Collaboration

Photo: John Lund/Getty Images

By January 2009, the stubborn recession had sent tax revenues into a deep dive and threatened to throttle Ohio's budget. Ohio's state agency CIOs were told to chop technology spending by 30 percent for a statewide total of $240 million.

Then in April 2009, Gov. Ted Strickland issued an executive order to implement additional spending controls. The controls outlined in the executive order included standardization, pooled purchasing and specific IT expense reductions, including consolidation.

The executive order also instructed the State CIO to establish policies, standards and services that reduce the cost of information technology, including energy costs.

Fortunately, Ohio had a CIO leadership group already in place: the Multi-Agency CIO Advisory Council. Its leadership management committee identified 126 strategies for cutting IT spending, placing server consolidation at the top of the list. To implement provisions of the executive order, the leadership management committee established the Enterprise Technical Architecture Subcommittee.

In turn, the subcommittee formed topical work groups to carry out the leadership management committee's strategies. One of the work- groups focused on server virtualization. The group helped create a guideline for selecting a common hypervisor, and continues to work on server- and virtualization-related issues.

Michael Schmeling/Veer
Dec 23 2010