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From Obsolete Servers to Private Cloud in 3 Easy Steps

By Sonny Discini (Send Email)
Posted May 27, 2010


Read more articles about private clouds

Frustrated with outdated equipment? Learn how to turn your old servers into a private cloud using open source tools.

It's happening everywhere. IT shops are being forced to do much more with a lot less. Given the new rules of engagement, the prospect of needing to find value in old hardware in the face of zero budget dollars is not unusual.

If you are like most server administrators, you have a pile of older servers sitting off to the side in your network operations center. They've been around for years, and individually, they do not offer much in the way of performance or use. But what if you could find a way to harness the power of all these servers together?

Build Your Own Nebulous

A server administrator for a national insurance company had this to say on the subject of recycling hardware.

Our accounting department showed us that we had no money to purchase new hardware and they went on to say that the five-year depreciation on hardware was going to be extended out to 10 years. Clearly there is a misunderstanding on requirements, but given that we must comply with this, we went to our warehouse and grabbed about five 2U Dell PowerEdge servers. Our plan was to build a private cloud, for free, using open source operating systems and virtualization. Even with no money, we still had projects on the table that had to be done. We called our experiment, 'Nebulous,' named after the cloud. The end result was better than we had imagined.

1. Assemble the Pieces

CentOS is the free version of the popular Red Hat Enterprise Linux operating system. It is a community-supported, mainly free, software operating system based on Red Hat Enterprise Linux. It exists to provide a free, enterprise-class computing platform, and it strives to maintain 100 percent binary compatibility. CentOS stands for Community ENTerprise Operating System.

We knew that CentOS had clustering capabilities, so we installed it across all five of our servers. Once we patched them and hardened the servers, we used the native clustering functionality to run all five servers as one environment. The really nice thing here is that the enterprise investment in the RHCE certification for us was not wasted. Our server administrators already had the skills to carry out the architecture design, so right there we were able to avoid contractor or training expenses.

We now had the hardware running, the open source OS pumping, all the configurations set and were now ready to add the final piece of the puzzle.

2. Create the Cloud

"We decided on VirtualBox, an open source virtualization platform."

VirtualBox is a general-purpose full virtualizer for x86 hardware. Targeted at server, desktop and embedded use, it is now the only professional-quality virtualization solution that is also open source software.

We had zero dollars to acquire an enterprise virtualization package, such as VMware, so we matched up our needs with the VirtualBox open source solution. We went ahead and set up the console, and began installing guest operating system environments. At this point, we had the security team come in and do a full risk assessment of the pilot design. We were very encouraged by their findings and felt that the level of risk was well below the benefits to the business. Management agreed and our Nebulous, or internal private cloud, was born.

3. Market the Old With a New Name

When we approached development and showed them how quickly we could add, remove, or assign test beds, they were very pleased. This would be a huge time saver from the current process of building environments by hand. It also allowed for many more environments to be tested simultaneously because there would not be a reliance on physical hardware being available or ready for use. They were so pleased that they gave us a bunch of hardware and asked us to add it to the environment.

We took the Nebulous pilot to other departments and business lines. Some were hesitant for the same reasons as outsourced cloud services, but once we explained that we own this cloud, tensions were lowered. The biggest set of questions we had came from departments who adhere to various regulations, such as PCI and SOX. We have asked our QSA vendor to assess our Nebulous environment and determine if it can be used.

New, Old and Innovation

From just this one example, we see that server administrators are mixing old hardware with new concepts to deliver viable business platforms with little to no costs. Given this example, I can see projects like "Nebulous" springing up across both private and public sector server environments.

As a final note, when asked about hard dollar savings Nebulous offered, the server admin had this to say.

We looked at everything from the [power] cost per slot in the network racks all the way to the hourly rates of pay associated with uptime and management of Nebulous. If we did this only for our development group, we would save 37 percent of the current costs to their operations.

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