Server Snapshots: Dell in the Real World

By Drew Robb (Send Email)
Posted May 1, 2008


Drew Robb
Remember the good old green-screen days? A few heavy-duty servers operated scores of dumb terminals. You wrote documents, fiddled with spreadsheets, printed stuff and that was about it. If anything went wrong, you called tech support. Then came that enlightened age when every desk had a thumping great PC underneath. Now, users could fix their own problems and control their own destinies.

Is thin finally in for the server room? For Amerisure Mutual Insurance it is.

And chaos ensued.

A new day is now dawning. We may well be seeing a swing back to those halcyon dumb terminal times. Thin clients are making a comeback, and today's servers have enough juice to support a fleet of client stations without performance problems or a mushrooming budget.

Case in point: Amerisure Mutual Insurance (Farmington Hills, Mich.), adopted a thin-client platform based on pizza box servers from Dell (Round Rock, Texas), Citrix XenApp software from Citrix Systems (Santa Clara, Calif.); virtualization provided by VMware, a division of Hopkinton, Mass. based EMC; and super-slim clients from Wyse Technology (San Jose, Calif.).

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"Amerisure has accomplished more-flexible thin-client architecture that is accessible from anywhere, is more secure and is available at a much lower TCO than traditional approaches," said Jack Wilson, enterprise architect at Amerisure. "This paradigm has only become workable as servers have become dramatically more powerful and cheaper."

Amerisure is using Dell PowerEdge 1950 servers as well as some Dell PowerEdge 1955 blades. These mostly quad-core machines form the hardware backbone of the Citrix farm. Wilson said he spent less than $10,000 for them.

Thin Clients Provide Worker Compensation

Amerisure focuses on worker compensation. Its services are sold through a limited number of agencies. It operates nine remote offices (known as core service centers or CSCs) in the Midwest and South. With around 800 employees, desktop management was becoming a real issue.

In response, the company tried to keep it simple. CSCs had only two servers — one for print and another as a domain controller. But even the simplest of hardware failures at a CSC could result in a couple of days of downtime due to lack of on-the-ground tech support resources.

Wilson decided that the company would adopt a completely centralized infrastructure. All IT roads would lead to Rome — or in this case, Farmington Hills. CSCs now have no servers at all. They consist purely of thin clients and routers. There isn't a server or PC in the entire facility. The thin clients are Wyse 5150SE, S50 and X90 devices.

To support its network of 800 clients, Amerisure operates about 50 servers in total. Most are x86 boxes from Dell. The company runs Citrix Xen on Dell 1950 and 1955 servers that use the Windows Server 2003 Enterprise Edition operating system. The Citrix farm itself consists of about 10 Dell boxes.

Wilson initially implemented PowerEdge 1955 blades, as well as PowerEdge 1950 servers — some are dual-core, some quad-core. Having tried, he admits he'll be sticking to the 1950s going forward and will eventually phase out the blades.

"We tried the Dell 1955 blades, but the cost benefits just were not there for us," said Wilson. "We don't have any space limitation, and our technicians didn't like having to work with a more compressed back end on the blades."

In terms of economics, he used to get 20 users on one server at a cost of $20,000 per server. Now, he cites $8,000 or so per server to support 80 to 90 thin clients.

Refresh Your Servers, Not PCs

Wilson insists that PC refreshes not only cost a fortune, they also tie up IT resources in projects that seem to take forever. Like painting the Golden Gate Bridge — once you get to the end, it's time to start all over again.

He's done the math, too. Wilson estimates that he would be paying close to $1.5 million for a PC refresh over a three year period. He felt that the money could be better spent elsewhere.

These days, the only refresh he has to do is to change out his servers. This is something he plans to carry out every three or four years. But it's certainly a much less expensive and far simpler operation than tackling 800 PCs.

"The pace of development is so fast that servers become obsolete in about three years, so they need to be changed out entirely," said Wilson. "Dell was our vendor of choice and the price was right."

The big gain, however, has come by transforming the entire infrastructure. Amerisure has gone thin client while eliminating what Wilson calls 40 years of accumulated technology — mainframe, midrange, Linux, Unix and Windows. Now it is a 100 percent Windows shop, and he says his data center staff need to focus on only one skill set, as opposed to being dispersed across IT's many geological epochs.

Wilson also now has a simple, 100 percent virtualized infrastructure — outside of the Citrix farm that doesn't require the addition of VMware to run hundreds of instances of Windows. All this has been done at a price that has been far less expensive than just continuing along with business-as-usual incremental IT advancement.

"We have significantly lowered our budget for software, hardware, support, security and DR," concluded Wilson. "What's more, we paid for the entire transformation to a virtual platform for the cost of one PC refresh."

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