Virtualisation veteran hails technology benefits

Manukau Institute of Technology transforms its 'deck of cards' infrastructure

Auckland’s Manukau Institute of Technology has transformed its IT infrastructure from an inefficient and sprawling server system to a highly virtualised environment.

MIT’s old infrastructure consisted of a range of Intel, Sun, Compaq and TMC servers, crammed into 19 racks. Most racks had screens, keyboards and mice, systems specialist Daniel Kenna says.

This sprawl and complexity created issues including under-utilisation of a large number of inexpensive low-end servers, lack of rack space, high demands on cooling, overloaded UPS, high maintenance and a stressed team, Kenna told Computerworld’s Virtualisation briefing, held in Auckland last week. The briefing was jointly sponsored by Dell, EMC and VMware.

There was a huge amount of cables and it was difficult to know what was plugged in where, he says.

“Over time, it became a complete mess,” he says. “We ran out of rack space and ended up putting servers in wherever we could fit them.”

Servers started to pile up on technicians’ desks. At one point Kenna had eight computers sitting on his desk, he says. He describes the situation as a “deck of cards”.

Another concern with the old infrastructure was that the development environment was virtually non-existent, which made testing and upgrading of live systems both disruptive and risky, he says.

Kenna and his team started investigating virtualisation technology two years ago and came across VMware’s GSX server — back then it was cheap, now it is a free download, he says.

Kenna started using the GSX for development and testing, and tried hosting some production services on it, but found that overhead was too high, he says. However, the team liked the virtualisation concept and started looking at implementing VMware’s ESX server.

MIT’s IT team believed that virtualisation and server consolidation would provide it with better cable management and more rack space. Consolidation would also mean energy savings, less cooling and better utilisation of servers, he says.

Virtualisation would also expand current services, making testing easier to perform, he says.

Another reason for taking the virtualisation path was operating system portability, which basically means being able to move a virtual machine from one piece of hardware to another without having to reinstall the operating system, he says. This also provides excellent disaster recovery, he says.

Kenna’s team got approval to install the ESX 2.5 server and has since updated to ESX 3.0.

Two years down the track, the virtualisation implementation has expanded services, says Kenna. The system has higher availability and business continuity is maintained. The IT team is providing fast, reliable service to other departments, and reduced stress levels has resulted in a happier team, he says.

MIT achieved a 64 to 5 consolidation ratio, with 95% of the Microsoft servers virtualised, says Kenna.

Other benefits of the virtualisation project include flexibility of resources on virtual servers, quicker provisioning of servers, and that virtual servers are not tied to a physical machine, he says. In addition, live migrations of virtual machines are now possible and the single management interface saves technicians from spending a lot of their time in the server room.

From a disaster recovery perspective, virtual machines are folders and files, which makes it easier to manage and backup information, says Kenna. MIT’s system recovery time has decreased from days to about 15 minutes, he says. MIT’s Sun 3510 storage array provides 2 x 680GB and 2 x 1.4TB of storage at separate sites for disaster recovery.

But virtualisation also has its pitfalls, and software licensing is one of them, warns Kenna. He recommends checking with the supplier as to whether it supports its software being virtualised.

Another disadvantage is that virtualisation currently does not support PCI, parallel or USB devices. “So you can’t stream the Rugby World Cup from a virtual machine, sorry,” he says. Resource contention and security are also potential issues that should be considered, he adds.

In the future, MIT will be looking at having virtual machines in the classroom, Kenna say.

Manukau Institute of Technology was established in 1970. It offers over 1500 courses and has 25,000 full and part time students and staff.

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