Virtualization | Feature

Cutting Back on Server Sprawl

A Kentucky school district has turned to virtualization to save money on servers while consolidating its IT infrastructure into a neat bundle.

When Barren County School District's IT team began exploring its server virtualization options three years ago, it had one clear goal in mind: to save money in an environment where funding was becoming scarcer by the minute. "Funding for big, metal servers was beginning to evaporate," recalled Steve Gumm, director of technology services for the Glasgow, KY, district. "With less and less money available, we were forced to look for alternatives."

Server Efficiency
The district started with an introspective examination of its own servers, the machines' capacities, and how much of that capacity was being utilized. It quickly discovered that some of the servers were handling one-off projects (namely, online testing), and running at just 3 percent to 5 percent of total capacity.

"We looked at how to maximize the hardware usage," said Gumm, "while still providing the end users with the infrastructure to handle those little one-off deals that they needed."

Gumm said the district concluded that while standalone servers were needed to perform the online testing and related tasks, add to an existing bank of 32 physical servers simply wasn't feasible or economical. Virtualization seemed like a good choice, according to Gumm, who added he liked the idea that once an online testing window was completed, the hardware could be easily recaptured and allocated to another task or project.

The district was also looking to increase its computer uptime. With the K-12 school year comprising about 185 days of instruction, Gumm said, any amount of hardware downtime was causing teachers to "lose quite a bit of [productivity] in terms of classroom work."

The idea that virtualization would allow the district to quickly reroute its computing power in case of server downtime was hard to ignore. "We wanted to be hardware agnostic," said Gumm, "and flexible when it came to managing our server environment and handling maintenance issues."

Testing and Ramping Up Virtualization
To kick off its virtualization implementation, the district's IT team set up a single server and virtualized it, "just to get our feet wet," said Gumm. "We wanted to see how the technology worked, and what it was all about."

The following year, the district set up four physical servers and two locations that work on a failover system. If one of the servers fails or runs into a problem and dies for whatever reason, said Gumm, all of the virtual servers are migrated off to the other physical servers, which pick up the slack. "The end user never misses a beat, and doesn't even notice the downtime."

Over the last three years Barren County School District has virtualized all 32 servers down to just four, including its Web server, print server, home server and application servers. The process took time and created some challenges for Gumm and his team, who said the transition presented "a big learning curve" on various fronts.

Documentation and wiring were two of the biggest obstacles with the new system.
"The bane of most IT is good, accurate documentation of your network, layout and configuration. That is critical," said Gumm. "When we switched over, we also implemented a couple of SANs and tied them back to the virtual servers, thus creating an environment where the wrong location of a single cable could take an entire server down."

"Documentation relating to network and server wiring was suddenly a very big deal," Gumm explained. To address the issue, he said servers were plugged into standard switches with color-coded cables. Blue cables can be moved to any other location on the switch, for example, but red ones cannot be relocated without creating major repercussions. "This simple strategy has saved us a lot of headaches," said Gumm.

Using virtualization to stem server sprawl and save precious IT dollars has worked out well for Barren County School District, which reduced its server cooling needs from 7.5 tons to just 2.5 tons. Server downtime has also decreased significantly, according to Gumm, whose team can quickly migrate server power in order to work on upgrades, updates and repairs.

"We're no longer bound to a small window of opportunity," said Gumm, "we can just work on the system whenever we need to."

Gumm said he expects tight budgets and the need to maximize IT assets to push more K-12 districts over to virtualized servers and storage. "With educational funds waning and server capacity sitting out there, unused, virtualization just makes sense," said Gumm. "When you can take a server that's running at 5 [percent] to 10 percent utilization and bump that up to 50 [percent] or 60 percent by virtualizing it, you definitely wind up getting more bang for your buck."

About the Author

Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at bridgetmc@earthlink.net.

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