Cities and counties don't need to be large in order to achieve cost and reliability benefits from virtualization.
Small municipalities and regional governments have tapped server virtualization to ensure they can recover their data when disaster strikes, ease management chores with limited IT staff and reduce hardware and software costs. Deployment is not without its challenges, however. Skirt the obstacles by heeding the advice of three government IT leaders who share what they would do differently next time around when implementing virtualization.
1. Take the plunge before it's too late
Windham, Maine, a tourist haven nestled in the Sebago Lake area, went virtual just in the nick of time.
"Our town hall systems were hanging on by a thread," says Thomas J. Trautlein, systems administrator for some 150 users. "They should have been replaced long before, but like with a lot of municipalities, money was extremely tight."
Last summer, Windham finally decided to bite the bullet and replace its Citrix server farm with hosts running VMware vSphere 5 and Microsoft Remote Desktop Services thin clients. Virtualization enabled the town to reduce the number of physical servers from five to three, avoid some costly software licensing fees and gain more flexibility in allocating computer resources, says Trautlein.
But Windham had a near miss with failure. "We cut it pretty close," Trautlein says. A month into the migration, a Citrix server that the town still relied on began to fail. "If the server had failed before we were ready, we would have had to simply replace it with another Citrix machine. We would not have been able to configure a whole new system. It would have crippled us," he adds.
2. Sell the long-term savings
Convincing budget-strapped officials to invest in virtualization technology can be a tough sell, concedes Charles Kent, IT professional for Keokuk County in Sigourney, Iowa.
"Initially, going virtual looks costly, especially to small organizations," Kent says. "But it will save you money in many areas, especially if you have only a part-time IT person or no IT staff at all."
Kent should know. He's a one-person IT shop for Keokuk County's 75 employees, who in turn serve approximately 10,500 residents spread out across 580 square miles. Within a few months of taking the job, he managed to convince the county's board of supervisors to invest roughly $45,000 in new Lenovo servers, VMware vSphere and vCenter, along with a Drobo backup solution and SonicWall security appliances.
Credit: Ryan Donnell
Deploying virtualization eases the burden of managing Keokuk County's IT systems, says Charles Kent.
For Keokuk, a key benefit of server virtualization is ease of management. Instead of having to roam the county monitoring machines, Kent can now manage them from a single console — reducing the amount of time he spends in transit, as well as the need to bring in additional help.
"Switching to virtualization saved us money by reducing the maintenance required for hardware and apps," Kent says. "Because the servers are now colocated, it's so much easier to connect to these systems and deal with any issues."
Organizations don't necessarily need to go all in at once, advises Trautlein.
"It's a gradual transition," he says. "We don't have the resources to do a wholesale system change all at once."
3. Put it in writing
Having a plan is essential, but sometimes you can overdo it, says Trautlein. The biggest lesson he learned from deploying virtualization was not to over-manage.
"We tripped ourselves up by trying to assert maximum control over the system right out of the gate," Trautlein says. "We locked everything down instead of easing in, and that affected workflow in the town hall."
For example, some users who floated between departments and needed to use printers in another domain discovered that they didn't have access rights to those machines. Trautlein's team had to make service calls to grant users the access they needed. "That was a headache," he adds.
On the other hand, committing the plan to paper was one of the best things the IT group did, Trautlein says. "One thing that really helped us was having a paper plan," he says. "Instead of writing it on a white board or trying to go from memory, we wrote down the plan, step by step. That helped the migration go smoothly and kept us from getting confused about what we had to do next."
4. Don't scrimp on redundancy
Keokuk County, Iowa, plans to deploy virtual desktops when current desktops reach their end of life, to reduce the cost and burden of system maintenance, says Charles Kent.
"In the past, when a machine broke, it was replaced by whatever was available at the time," Kent says. As a result, he's faced with multiple operating systems and different versions of applications. "After replacing everything with VDI, everyone will be working with the same technology, and it will be consistent throughout the county."