When Stroud District Council found its IT storage and management costs
escalating 50 per cent every year for three consecutive years, drastic action was needed.
Nick Watkins, modernisation and IT manager at Stroud District Council, says the setup, serving about 500 users required more and more server power and vendor upgrades. By 2006, the organisation was struggling with server sprawl and the associated rise in support costs.
“It is almost like [vendor] waste became our cost,” he says.
The IT team itself was already relatively small so the obvious place to look was at optimising the infrastructure with virtualisation, which is now a top priority for organisations of all sizes wanting to achieve greater efficiencies in IT.
Watkins’ team decided to deploy new virtualisation technologies to massively boost server and storage optimisation, remove unneeded IT redundancies and save money.
The full journey took 12 months of initial research, six to seven months of planning followed by an eight to nine month rollout, ending in November 2008, and more can be done if the council decides to take its virtualisation even further.
Distributor Magirus and VAR Commercial IT Services were chosen for the project, which hinged on offerings from virtualisation pathfinder and market leader VMware.
“We were originally talking to three suppliers three large firms because we have to compare three as part of the formal tender process. And while a couple of big partners had the usual sales patter that was quite impressive, it was quite refreshing when we started talking to Commercial,” says Watkins.
“They told us how things actually were and what we needed to do, such as in migrations from a physical to a virtual infrastructure and what the challenges might be.”
The council provides round-the-clock services to 110,000 residents in the Cotswolds, from the principal town of Stroud to Slimbridge. The IT must also help council operations meet statutory requirements as and when they come into force.
“We looked at virtualisation because it offered us the chance to consolidate our hardware and, if we had continued to grow, we would not have been able to manage with a single network engineer,” says Watkins. “We are trying to free up resources with smarter spending.”
The VMware virtualisation solution deployed by Commercial with Magirus’ help allows Stroud District Council to reduce the number of potential points of failure across its network. It also provides a route to transparent technology migration, improved return on investment (RoI) and is reliable and easy to manage, according to Watkins.
Green issues are also important to the council. “Our carbon footprint is really important to us. And our cooling costs went down,” he says. “Also, we now have a VMware interface.”
The council would have needed to spend that money just to keep pace with escalating organisational needs, but virtualisation was a smarter way to spend, he says.
As a result of the virtualisation project completed in November, Stroud District Council now projects maintenance and management cost savings of £150,000 over four years as well as £8,000 per annum in utility bills, accounting for an estimated 80 tonnes of carbon per year.
“Originally, our servers were running at 10 to 15 per cent use, which is typical. Suppliers sell us massive quad-core machines or they will not support us. With our VMware solution, we can adjust the hardware and resources down to 1GB of RAM and a single processor. Our network manager adjusts them every six months or so,” says Watkins.
Lisa Jones, corporate account manager at reseller Commercial IT Services, says the deployment effectively reverses Stroud’s 50 per cent year-on-year rise in storage and management costs.
Commercial provided guidance on virtualisation and a solution based on VMware ESX servers, incorporating tools such as Platespin and PowerRecon workload analysis tools, and SAN from HP.
Commercial also simulated the likely council email and management system traffic. A clear picture of the application services running on the servers and associated resource use enabled a system planning report to showcase options and a recommended consolidation ratio of 6:1. The partners used this report to consolidate and fine-tune the processing power and memory needed.
Migration took place on a weekend to prevent disruption. Thirty-two servers were virtualised for applications supporting services such as revenue, benefits and waste collection. Just five physical servers remain.
Virtualisation technology and services are providing reliable opportunities even for smaller resellers in tough economic times.
“As a growing company, we are winning business from larger suppliers because we can get closer to the customer and, as a more malleable team, we have the flexibility,” says Jones.
“We have been doing virtualisation for about four years now, for organisations with 10 servers up to 250 or more servers.”
Commercial also works with complementary technologies from HP LeftHand and Citrix as well as the usual foundation, non-virtualisation products from the likes of Microsoft.
“If it is desktop virtualisation, it does tend to be from Citrix at this time. But for servers, it is VMware’s tried-and-tested, grown-up solutions,” she says.
VMware is also a good vendor to work with and provides reliable training and support. “VMware is on the next two or three steps up the ladder in terms of virtualisation development,” she claims.
The solutions are very green, to the point of Commercial collecting a number of awards for its focus on carbon neutrality. “We are very focused on that.”
Jones says resellers wanting to succeed in the virtualisation market need to invest in the right people and technologies, and understand where they want to be in the market and what offerings will best achieve that positioning.
Some confusion around virtualisation still exists in parts of the market and with end users. Andrew Binding, UK managing director of Magirus, says the word virtualisation means anything that allows firms’ IT infrastructure to abstract the software or application layer from the hardware.
“So you are putting in a layer of software called a hypervisor that enables you to configure and use the hardware in a highly efficient manner,” he says.
A virtual machine (VM) environment offers a complete simulation of underlying hardware.
“You can start with a very large server setup or chunk of infrastructure and use virtualisation to segment that into discrete units or processing power,” says Binding.
If, for example, users have a particular application that is mission critical, but have higher demand for it at certain times such as payroll or taxation which uses a large amount of processing power, that capacity can sit unused most of the time.
By creating a virtual server, users can dynamically alter the amount of computing power available to suit their needs, saving power and reducing the overall amount of IT resources needed. This frees up those resources if they are pre-paid or in-house for other uses.
“Another spin-off is that it changes the way we really think about computing and computing resources,” says Binding. “You can do things such as look after a core of services on the fly.”
Disaster recovery services, involving automatic failover systems on a virtualised network, offer a huge opportunity for the channel. Provisioning of machines also moves far more quickly with a virtualised infrastructure.
“In the past, if you created a new business unit, you would have to obtain the IT resources you need from another part of the business. And that could take some time because of the approvals you would need,” says Binding.
“With virtualisation, you can provision those new requirements and get things moving. There is more flexibility to have a much more dynamic approach.”
Businesses that can adapt quickly, with their IT infrastructure keeping pace, are more likely to survive or profit when times get unpredictable.
Binding says that Magirus has been working closely with VMware. Although the technology is not new, the sales potential and chance of using technology to transform 21st century organisations is real.
“Things such as partitioning of resources were an early form of virtualisation. VMware’s hypervisor was invented to target x86 machines,” he says.
Reliability and efficiency
Hypervisors originally appeared in the 1970s as cost pressures forced
a move to consolidate multiple computers scattered around university departments, say, on to one larger machine, which became known as the mainframe.
The aim was to gain robustness, reliability and efficiency. If one operating system crashed, the others should still function.
VMware hypervisors are a bit different. When VMware uses the word, it means a Type 1 ‘bare metal’ hypervisor. According to the firm, this VM Monitor (VMM) is software that runs on physical host hardware to control the hardware and monitor the guest operating system, which runs on another level above the hypervisor or VMM.
VMware also uses Type 2 or hosted hypervisors apps within conventional operating system environments such as VMware Server or GSX, VMware Workstation, Microsoft’s Virtual PC and Virtual Server.
Binding says that virtualisation should be a priority for the channel this year. “You can really focus on value,” he says. “Virtualisation is the first major change in IT that is all about efficiency, cost savings and lowering infrastructure costs.”
Although there was a slowdown in the latter part of 2008, virtualisation sales will stay steady as firms increase their focus on cost savings and efficiency, not least as virtualisation opportunities expand to the desktop and to disaster recovery, business continuity, security and storage.
“We are seeing opportunities arise from things such as the management of virtual environments,” adds Binding.
It is not just virtualisation, of course, but what resellers can bundle with it that offers potential.
Kevin Moreau, UK and Ireland general manager at backup and recovery solution provider Acronis, agrees that the sales potential around virtualisation is sustainable.
Channelling the opportunities
“You have customers who are looking at it in terms of protection, managing fewer services, lower overheads and less hardware.
“Then there are customers who are looking at a virtualisation environment as a way to improve their disaster recovery strategy,” he says. “For both, we provide value. And you still need disaster recovery for your VMs.”
Acronis provides solutions that can back up a virtualised environment quickly and enable customers to keep things simple, minimising the number of vendors end to end. “We have seen more than 50 per cent growth [in turnover] for the 2008 calendar year,” adds Moreau.
Matt Piercy, northern EMEA regional director at VMware, says resellers are definitely seeing success in this market.
“We talk to our resellers and they tell us that virtualisation is pretty much the only thing that is selling right now,” Piercy says.
Virtualisation is about cost savings and can deliver RoI quickly. Fast RoI has major appeal for firms that are now lucky if they have the same budget as in 2008.
Building on the success of virtualising servers for external applications, Stroud District Council’s Watkins plans to virtualise other servers to share resource for internal processes.
VMware is already deployed in many major UK companies to some extent. It is no longer a niche offering; virtualisation is something that everybody has or wants.
And those that already have it need services and support or they will be looking to upgrade or expand their virtualisation strategy, Piercy concludes.
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