After years of adding servers into its Atlanta data center, NewEnergy Associates hit the wall. As well as running out of space, it reached a boundary in terms of heat and power consumption.
Things were getting hot in the data center of the Atlanta-based provider of IT and consulting services, but virtualization let the company add computing resources and reduce power consumption.
It wasn’t feasible to add another air conditioner or more uninterruptible power supply (UPS) backup power. To do so would take a complete redesign of the entire power/cooling infrastructure and that was going to prove very expensive.
“We had reached our performance envelope on power and cooling and couldn’t add any more boxes,” says Neal Tisdale, vice president of software development with NewEnergy Associates of Atlanta, Ga. “The only way to gain more computing resources was to retire slower Wintel boxes and virtualize them into more modern cooler machines.”
The company deployed Sun Fire X4100 and X4200 servers, using them to create a virtualized environment. The resulting consolidation project meant that up to 18 servers could be centralized onto one Sun Fire box using Opteron dual-core processors.
“Our data center is 17 degrees cooler and our UPS uptime is now extended over 30 percent,” says Tisdale. “We avoided having to buy a new AC and UPS, saving over $180,000.” NewEnergy Associates is a wholly owned subsidiary of German giant Siemens Power Generation (PG). It’s a provider of IT and consulting services for clients operating in electricity, natural gas, energy trading and retailing, government, and power generation. In particular, the company develops simulation and market operation software. This enables its energy clientele to evaluate key business risk factors and manage risk in the face of rising fuel costs, environmental regulations, and competitive pressures.
Until the end of last year, NewEnergy’s main data center in Atlanta consisted of about 20 generic white box servers and more than 70 Dell servers. The white boxes ran the payroll system and general ledger using older versions of Windows. They were also used as email and DNS servers.
The Dell servers, however, operated in a compute grid used by developers. This rather basic grid architecture used Python scripts to create work queues. Tisdale notes that its in-house servers ranged from dual Xeon systems all the way down to Pentium 3 and Pentium 4 machines.
“We always try to stay one step below the most powerful as that avoids paying the exotic prices of the latest and greatest,” he says. “As we were constantly adding more compute power, we ended up with a wide range of processor generations.”
The IT infrastructure included a massive tape backup system, a storage array, a giant UPS and dedicated cooling. In addition, the company has a secondary data center in Houston.
AC Failure Is Call for Action
Tisdale had his attention thoroughly fixed on the inadequacies of his IT design by an AC outage. It happened in the middle of the night, of course, and resulted in the AC system blowing hot air into the data center.
“In less than 40 minutes, the temperature inside the data center rose from 67 degrees to over 125 degrees,” says Tisdale. “It was the same effect as having 70 blow dryers turned on inside a small room.”
Fortunately, some servers were programmed to shut down at specific temperatures. When they went offline, that triggered alerts to IT staff. The first people on site shut down the AC as well as most of the other servers. However, e-mail and voice-mail servers were left online with fans positioned nearby to keep the temperature down. Twenty-four hours later, technicians remedied the AC problem.
While the incident prompted IT to install thermal sensing equipment inside the AC system, it also caused a major rethink in the department. Coincidentally, some developers at NewEnergy had spent the previous few months working with the Sun Java Workstation W2100z. It was initially introduced to add more horsepower at the desktop level. During that time, they experimented with VMware and began to appreciate the possibilities of a virtualized server consolidation environment.
Despite their traditional preference for power on the desktop, these developers decided to adopt a centralized model. They moved workstations into the data center. This allows programmers to work from home, from a park or to collaborate using the same VM. “Centralization is now hip, even with the ‘I want big iron on my desk’ crowd,” says Tisdale.
In November of 2005, the company moved forward on a large-scale server virtualization initiative. It migrated to Sun Fire x64 Opteron processor-based servers. NewEnergy also consolidated and virtualized legacy remote and back office x86 servers using Sun Fire x64 servers running VMware GSX server. In total, this encompassed two Sun Fire X4100 servers, four Sun Fire X4200 servers and more recently, two Sun Fire 2200’s. Everything runs on Solaris 10, with the Sun NI Grid Engine used for grid purposes. Software by PlateSpin Ltd of Toronto was used to build the image file needed by VMware in order to virtualize each Wintel server.
Tisdale gives one example of 18 old x86 P3/P4 servers consisting of 24 CPUs, 22 power supplies, 44 hard drives, 26GB of RAM, and consuming more than 14,000 watts of power. These were all moved onto one Sun X4200 server.
“Having many virtual servers running on a couple of X4200’s has really reduced our network traffic as everything stays inside the box,” says Tisdale.
While all the white boxes have now gone, some of the more modern Dell dual Xeon machines remain and continue to be used in a grid architecture to perform complex simulations. NewEnergy prioritized server retirement, he says, according to heat and wattage ratings.
“We are still well below our heat and power levels of a year ago,” says Tisdale.
The move has improved the company’s capability to provide its services, too. Its VectorGas application, for example, optimizes gas portfolio and delivery. It uses the Sun grid to producing in seconds or minutes what used to take up to 30 hours.
“Fifty-five minute transactions have gone sub-minute,” says Tisdale. “And the volume of simulations has risen considerably.”
NewEnergy is about to move to VMware ESX in order to facilitate the addition of more servers for an expected hike in new business. For this project, IT is being beefed up to host hot copies of each customer site. As a result, it has decided to virtualize all its customers. This means the addition of a Sun Fire X4200 to take care of 13 virtual customer sites.
“This box will provide at least three virtual servers for each of 13 customers — Web server, application server and database server,” says Tisdale. “We will also probably add a new Sun storage array.”