Sydney Uni reaps the benefits of virtualisation

However, not all areas should be virtualised, CIO says

Following a long IT career in the financial services sector, two and half years ago Bruce Meikle joined the University of Sydney as CIO.

Like all enterprises with many distributed departments, one of Sydney University's greatest challenges is centralising IT management in order to reduce infrastructure duplication and streamline operations.

Although some elements of server virtualisation were happening before Meikle started at the university, the organisation intends to "really ramp it up" over the next couple if years.

"One issue is dealing with the significant growth in operational and research data, which is going through the roof," Meikle says. "The ability to provide storage and computing in a flexible and efficient way is critical for us."

During his time in the financial industry, Miekle did stints at the likes of AMP, Colonial, Westpac, and even had a year at Woolworths. He says the university wants to move to a much more robust set of services as it helps manage the transition of services from the older, distributed IT model. The ultimate driver, however, is dealing with growth and providing more effective disaster recovery.

The university went through a formal review and tender for servers and storage and established preferred suppliers in those categories. It settled on VMware as its server hypervisor and its hardware suppliers are IBM, HP and Dell for servers and IBM, HP and Sun for storage.

Most of the centrally managed storage is virtualised and of the 1083 servers, 762 (70 percent) are virtual and 321 are physical. Of the virtual servers 474 are Windows Server and 142 are Red Hat Linux.

"Our approach is: with anything new, consider virtualisation as the first choice, but we will make pragmatic decisions," Meikle says. "There are some situations where virtualisation is not ideal, like primary backend databases."

Meikle was initially concerned about the level of virtualisation skills within the IT team, not because he felt virtualisation was difficult, but because it was relatively new at the time.

"One is always concerned about skills with new technologies, but the vendor support has been good," he says. "From a setup point of view it has been effective.

"We had to move the production data sets earlier this year, which we did with almost no interruption. Without virtualisation, it would have been much more difficult."

Regarding application support from vendors, Meikle says it can be an issue and the team had the "odd argument with one or two", but it hasn't been a major problem.

"There are not a huge amount of problems with application support," he says. "It can be a bit of a learning curve, but we've had good support from suppliers like IBM and VMware to build that capability. Now we take into consideration which components are virtualised."

As part of moving its core data sets to virtual machines, the university was able to turn off some 200 physical servers and yield large cost savings and energy efficiencies as a result.

"In terms of costs, we definitely see savings in space and power usage," Meikle says, adding the university is trying to be "a bit green" at the same time for ethical reasons.

He says because the university is also dealing with a lot of growth in data right now, virtualisation has also helped manage the extra requirements.

Because the university is a distributed organisation, staff are used to having local computing resources at their disposal. Indeed, many departments were required to build up their own siloed IT management practices before the advent of a shared services model.

"Finding a balance between central management and academic activities is not easy, but virtualisation helps," Meikle says.

"We can provision a server faster than we could previously and give people more control over their environment. And, being a university, we have people with technical skills who want to run their own systems."

The university is running a shared services programme to achieve the best balance between central and distributed services.

"The big thing for us is research and the virtualised environment helps us manage that so the next phase will involve a lot of sharing and collaboration," Meikle says.

The rise of virtual server technology must not be at the expense of storage and management infrastructure, according to Andrew Silvers, infrastructure software manager at HP enterprise servers and storage South Pacific.

"Virtualisation exposes a storage pain point," Silvers says. "It's easy to virtualise a lot of servers, but the storage implications are not seen until the customer gets moving."

Silvers says both in the small business and enterprise space, many people neglect the storage piece of the virtualisation puzzle, which can lead to higher costs later.

"Organisations that grew to have many servers across many branches are benefiting from virtualisaton. But I don't believe it's crazy yet," he says. Silvers emphasises management software as an important part of a virtualisation strategy.

"Do I want to train all my people on one hypervisor technology? Being able to easily take advantage of new technology and manage physical and virtual servers together is important," he says.

HP blade server and SAN customer Dingo Equipment Australia has also gone down the virtualisation path.

Dingo is a manufacturer of earth moving equipment and runs Microsoft's business software and Citrix's XenServer hypervisor for mission-critical systems.

Dingo Equipment Australia's information technology and communications manager, Paul Chipisuboff, says: "We have virtualised our whole world . . . I can rebuild my servers from anywhere.

"We use HP hardware to run the Xen servers and have embraced virtualisation as a key competitive strategy," he says.

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