Case Study: 'Thinking Outside of the Box'

How The George Washington University IT department saved money, consolidated servers and optimized workloads.

Brian Mislavsky doesn't think about servers anymore. Oh, he knows his team has lots of servers to manage. As a systems administrator for The George Washington University (GW) in Washington, D.C., his department oversees about 400 physical boxes. But his thinking, like much of his operation now, has been abstracted; his mind has embraced virtualization, too.

"I started thinking of computers as nothing more than resources -- CPU, RAM ... I think of things as a [server] farm now, not as individual hosts."

That has freed him in a way. No longer tied to the concept of one physical server equals one logical server, Mislavsky sees the potential for redefining the nature of server-client computing.

Or at least his corner of it.

Beyond ROI
For one thing, it's saved a huge amount of money. A return on investment (ROI) study performed last year found six-figure savings over a traditional, non-virtualized approach (more specific numbers were unavailable). "Every VM [virtual machine] means one less physical server. Just multiply that by cost per machine," Mislavsky says, to find a quick and easy ROI (an actual ROI/TCO study is much more detailed).

Virtualization has "saved money and space," Mislavsky says. "How many servers did we not buy? How many racks did we not deploy?"

But there's more to it than just ROI, Mislavsky comments. In fact, for him, cost savings per machine is a less-important consideration. "It's all the intangible" benefits of virtualization that really fire him up, he says, time and again.

Like seeing his environment as a pool of resources, for instance. They've standardized on VMware's virtual infrastructure using VirtualCenter for management. There are 12 ESX hosts split between two data centers and two hosts for VirtualCenter.

The Spaghetti Method
Like many who first get into virtualization, GW took a "spaghetti" approach: throw it against the wall and see if it sticks. Mislavsky and his team built a couple of VMs, put them on a server and started playing.

They liked what they saw, and were able to convince the school to take the plunge and implement a full-scale VMware deployment, initially on ESX Server 2.5. "It had its trials and tribulations," Mislavsky remembers. Moving to virtual infrastructure was a big upgrade, one with which he's very happy.

Because of VMware features like VMotion, which allows a VM to be transferred from one physical host to another with no downtime, Mislavsky has peace of mind. He ticks off other benefits: "The ability to not be bound by hardware; to take snapshots of systems [for backup and disaster recovery purposes]; the [automatic] load balancing of systems."

At the time of this writing, GW has between 150 and 200 VMs running on the ESX servers. The number of VMs created weekly varies, Mislavsky says. "Sometimes it's five a week, sometimes it's none in a week." A multitude of OSes are used, including Windows, Linux and Sun Solaris. The majority, however-Mislavsky estimates 85 percent to 90 percent-run Windows Server 2003.

Top 3 Planning Tips for Virtualization Deployment
Brian Mislavsky, a systems administrator for The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., learned a lot from the school's rollout of a VMware Infrastructure. Here, he shares three of his top tips for doing it right.

1. Get the people in place
Aside from your project and team leads, you will need buy-in from various groups, including networking, storage, systems, data center/operations and so on. This will become important as you flesh out your environment, because you will want to incorporate your virtual environment into your existing plans.

2. Have processes and procedures in place
Probably the most important tip. The ability to add, delete and modify systems when needed creates new challenges to existing change-management policies and procedures. The cooperation mentioned in tip No. 1 will come in handy here. Having all your policies and procedures hammered out in advance will not only save you a fair amount of work later, but can also prevent "VM sprawl," which can be just as bad as physical server sprawl.

3. Don't be afraid!
Leveraging virtualization opens the door to many new ways of doing things, and you shouldn't be afraid of them. As virtualization becomes more prevalent through the industry, more and more users are using it to revamp or improve their current business practices. You shouldn't be afraid to try anything new, as you may be able to make life easier for someone in your organization. Stay on top of new technologies and check user groups/forums to see if someone is already doing what you're trying to do.

Doing More with Less
The school has standardized on Dell PowerEdge 6850 servers in production, and a mix of 2650s and 6650s in testing and development. On the storage side, GW uses EMC storage. All VMs reside on the SAN, rather than on individual servers, making backup and recovery much easier. Again, it's those intangibles making a difference.

Although server consolidation is an important part of GW's virtualization efforts, it's not the key reason for using virtualization, according to Mislavsky. "We're trying to optimize workloads, making sure everyone gets what they need." Hence, the importance of load balancing in this environment-with VMware, Mislavsky says, "there are so many ways to guarantee and restrict service levels."

In order to keep meeting those service level agreements and guarantees, the department ordered another dozen Dell PowerEdge 2950s for its infrastructure in late January. As a rule of thumb, when a physical server reaches 50 percent capacity, servers are getting ripe for offloading capacity. "At 75 percent, we need to add resources-we try to ensure that we always have abundant resources available," Mislavsky says.

Creating new VMs through VirtualCenter couldn't be much easier or quicker. Mislavsky needs fewer than a half-dozen mouse clicks to set up one Windows Server 2003, at which point VMware revs up and spits out the new VM in about 20 minutes. Compare that to building a server, loading the OS, downloading all the necessary upgrades and patches. It's how Mislavsky and his lean team are able to do more with less.

For the server IT team at GW, virtualization is more than a convenience; it's at the heart of what they do and, increasingly, how they think. And it's that kind of abstract, literally "out-of-the-box" thinking that's moving virtualization forward.

About the Author

Keith Ward is the editor in chief of Virtualization & Cloud Review. Follow him on Twitter @VirtReviewKeith.