In Paulding County, Ga., server virtualization was a dream that seemed out of reach. To build a more efficient, greener data center and save money, the IT department first had to spend money, and the county lacked the funds.
However, the county found a way after all. When the U.S. Department of Energy last year offered grants for projects that promoted energy efficiency, Paulding County's IT administrators proposed a $226,000 server virtualization project that would virtualize half of its servers and reduce power consumption by 30 to 40 percent.
"We've known for years about the benefits of server virtualization, but the virtual environment has worked better than we could ever imagine," says Paulding County Technology Director Will Lyons.
Virtualization allows multiple applications to run in their own virtual environment within a single server. By deploying virtualization, Paulding County's IT department was able to consolidate its servers. As a result, the county reduced its electricity bill, simplified IT management and improved reliability and continuity of operations. Such benefits have made virtualization one of the most popular IT projects in recent years. In fact, increasing the use of server virtualization is the top priority among enterprises over the next 12 to 18 months, according to a 2011 spending intentions survey of 611 IT professionals conducted by Enterprise Strategy Group. "It's the No. 1 priority because of the significant reduction in capital costs that you can achieve," says Mark Bowker, a senior analyst at ESG.
The biggest savings from virtualization come from reduced hardware costs. That includes direct savings from purchasing fewer servers to run IT operations, but also indirect savings such as less maintenance and reduced power and cooling costs, says Milwaukee CIO Nancy Olson, whose city began virtualizing its servers in 2006.
While equipment and energy savings are tangible and easy to calculate, there are soft benefits that are harder to quantify, Olson says. For example, virtualization allows IT departments to manage servers quickly and easily, which boosts IT productivity. High availability of servers also means less downtime, which boosts employee productivity.
"Once you have invested in training and made the initial virtualization software purchase, it's a win-win situation," Olson says.
Last fall, Paulding County consolidated about 30 physical servers to six blades that run a total of 26 virtual machines, says Paulding County IT Manager Erin McDowell, who worked with Lyons on the implementation.
With funds from the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant, the IT department standardized on VMware vSphere virtualization software and IBM BladeCenter HS22 blade servers. The county decided to replace its existing rackmount servers with blades to maximize energy efficiency and better meet the grant's requirements.
Darren Hauck/Wonderful Machine
Blade servers are more energy efficient because of their small form factor and because they share common resources in the same chassis, such as power supplies, cooling fans and network connections. "Those blade chassis use a lot less energy, and overall, the energy savings have been big," McDowell says.
To bolster continuity of operations, the county purchased a blade chassis with five blades running at the county's primary data center and a matching set for its secondary data center. The county is currently using three blades in each chassis to run the virtual servers and saving the remaining two blades in each chassis for redundancy and continued growth.
The IT department has exceeded its initial goal of virtualizing half its servers and reducing power consumption by 30 to 40 percent. In fact, the county has virtualized more than 80 percent of its servers and has slashed energy usage by more than 50 percent, Lyons says.
Paulding County's IT staff is also taking advantage of easier management and maintenance of servers. For example, if a department needs a new application that requires a new server, the county IT staff can quickly spin up a new virtual server within a couple of hours. In the past, the county would have had to order a new server, wait for its arrival, and then install and configure it — a process that could take two to three weeks, Lyons says.
The server virtualization project in Northbrook, Ill., generates carbon emissions savings equivalent to removing 6 cars from the road or planting 746 trees.
Through VMware's vCenter management software, the IT department can get one single view of all the servers and troubleshoot remotely from a web management console. In the past, if there were server-related problems, it would have had to connect to each individual server to diagnose and fix the issue. "It's easier to look at our environment all at once, which provides faster response and resolution of problems," Lyons says.
Virtualization also improves reliability and uptime. If a server requires maintenance, the IT staff no longer needs to power it down during off hours. They can simply use VMware's vMotion software to move the virtual machines to another blade, perform the maintenance work and move the VMs back without any downtime, McDowell says.
Similarly, if a blade crashes, McDowell can quickly move the VMs to another blade within minutes to keep the applications running.
Ending Server Sprawl
The data center for the village of Northbrook, Ill., also had room for improvement — and is a textbook case of why virtualization is needed.
When Richard Kramer arrived as IT manager a year and a half ago, Northbrook had 20 aging servers, most of which were 6 years old and had reached the end of their useful lives. The servers used direct-attached storage. Some were underutilized, while others were near capacity, forcing Kramer to regularly try to delete files and open up storage space.
"Our servers were full of inefficiencies," Kramer says. "Virtualization was just a great way to consolidate and upgrade our entire server infrastructure."
See how Loudoun County, Va., reduced the energy costs for its data center from roughly $630 per server per year to about $109 per server after deploying VMware virtualization, according to Network Engineer Michael Avera.
Kramer won approval from Northbrook's Board of Trustees to purchase two HP ProLiant DL380 rack servers, VMware vSphere software and an HP StorageWorks MSA2300 storage area network, which has solved his storage problems.
This spring, Kramer reduced 20 physical servers down to three. The two new servers currently run 10 virtual servers, and when the project is done, Northbrook will have 13 virtualized applications. A third physical server remains to run a legacy application that cannot be virtualized.
Northbrook will save about $10,700 per year on its power bill, Kramer says. Virtualization also eliminates $8,000 in extended warranty costs that Northbrook paid each year for its older servers. And the IT department also was able to consolidate software licenses. Kramer has consolidated three SQL Server database licenses and hardware down to one single virtual server, saving an additional $4,000 a year.
Implementation Best Practices
IT administrators say the server virtualization process is easy and straightforward. VMware's physical-to-virtual (P2V) tool automatically converts applications running on a physical server to a virtual state.
"The conversions take a few hours per server, depending on the size of the applications, amount of data and speed of the servers," Kramer says.
Government agencies should implement server virtualization in phases, starting with noncritical servers, Paulding County's Lyons recommends. The county's implementation took about a month. It began with test servers, and as the initial migrations worked, the IT department had the confidence to migrate mission-critical servers such as e-mail and databases.
Organizations that have already virtualized servers should always keep tabs on the latest virtualization technologies and look for ways to improve their implementation, says Milwaukee's Olson.
For example, Milwaukee virtualized its enterprise applications with VMware in 2006. But over the past year, the city has begun making the switch to Microsoft's Hyper-V virtualization software because licensing is more affordable and the Microsoft product provides a comparable set of features.
Milwaukee currently runs a mixed VMware and Hyper-V environment. The IT department uses a Microsoft migration tool that converts a VMware VM to a Hyper-V VM, says Pao Vang, a project leader with Milwaukee's information technology and management division. When the project is complete at the end of the year, the city will have roughly 80 Hyper-V VMs running on six physical servers, he says.
Regardless of vendor, the benefits of virtualization are the same, Olson says. "Our big savings is that we can do more with less," she says. "It makes us more efficient and leaner."
From the Server to the Desktop
Now that Paulding County, Ga., has implemented server virtualization, it's going to take advantage of the new data center infrastructure by virtualizing its desktops too.
The county IT department plans to create virtual desktops for 120 users in the Sheriff's Office this fall and migrate the county's remaining 630
users in the next three or four years, says Technology Director Will Lyons.
Client virtualization will save the county substantial funds. Instead of spending $100,000 to purchase new computers for the Sheriff's Office, providing every user with a virtual desktop on their existing PCs will cost one-third of that, says Erin McDowell, IT manager.
With client virtualization, or Virtual Desktop Infrastructure, servers are partitioned into different virtual machines. Each user gets his or her own virtual computer with a full operating system and applications.
Desktop virtualization improves security, manageability and maintenance because everything is housed in the data center and can be centrally managed, Lyons says.