ServersServer Snapshots: City Goes Virtual with IBM

Server Snapshots: City Goes Virtual with IBM

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Virtualization technology is finding its way into most organizations these days. According to IDC, Virtual machine (VM) deployments are expected to grow from 540,000 in 2006 to more than 4 million in 2009. Many have or will make the move in order to improve server utilization rates or consolidate its infrastructure.
In a move that reduced its physical servers from 32 to two, the city of Alexandria, La., turned to VMware virtualization software and IBM System x366 servers.

It was the latter reason that drove the city of Alexandria to implement VMs.

“We went from 32 physical servers down to two IBM servers at City Hall,” said Blake Rachal, a systems analyst for the city of Alexandria. “VMware has got to be the most cost-effective solution I have ever seen.”

Alexandria celebrated its bicentennial last year. Located along the navigable Red River, the city is home to 46,000 people and is a premier port facility for the central Louisiana corridor. It’s situated about three hours from New Orleans.

Alexandria has been using IBM servers for well over a decade. Until recently, it had 27 System x servers and one System p at City Hall. Its System x’s were older models — all 1U and 2U. Five x345’s, one x335, one x346, one x342, eight x330’s and three x250’s. These machines were three to six years old. A little more than two years ago, the city added three x366’s — 4-way dual-core 3.1 GHz Xeon machines with 32 GB RAM. Less than a year ago, it purchased four x365’s — Xeon single-processor boxes with 4 GB RAM — and a single processor x3850.

“IBM has a deep resource pool and has always given us great service,” Rachal said. “We are also well-serviced by local IBM partner CMA.”

Its System x servers operated across the range of functions: domain controllers, file/print servers, e-mail servers and application servers. However, over time, the System x servers began to struggle with a rising workload.

“Our systems are a profit center for the city so everything has to be kept up and running,” Rachal said.

Last year, therefore, the city took that aging System x infrastructure and condensed it down to a couple of boxes. Two IBM System x366 servers run a multitude of applications using virtualizationsoftware by VMware. Separate VMs are used to run Lotus Notes, anti-virus software, a fire department application, a cell phone application, three domain controllers, time and attendance software, anti-spyware software, a work order processing system and several other applications.

Rachal reported that the move to VMs reduced server provisioning times from several weeks to less than 10 minutes. In the past, it took him at least three weeks to obtain the funds, order, take delivery and install a new server.

“With VMware, I can use a server image so that if one VM goes down, I can have another one up and running before a user even notices that anything is wrong,” said Rachal.

System p Problems
In addition to its System x infrastructure, the city of Alexandria also has one IBM System p670. It was purchased six years ago with the goal of providing all the the raw computing power the city would ever need to run its core money making systems — financials, point of sales (POS) and bill printing running on AIX and an Oracle database.

“We bought the System p so we were never going to have an issue again with lack of compute power,” said Rachal “But it used so much power and demanded a tremendous amount of cooling.”

Another downside to aging hardware such as the System p was maintenance costs. Alexandria found it expensive to hold onto its older gear due to the cost of ongoing maintenance contracts. Further, these servers were built at a time when power and cooling needs were not such sensitive issues. As a result, the company had to keep adding bigger and better cooling systems.

“The more servers, the warmer the room, the bigger the cooling unit,” said Rachal. “It was like a snake eating itself, so we had to do something to break the cycle.”

As for the System p, it will be gone finally by June. Its entire load of applications, financials and accounting software is being transferred over to five IBM HS21 blades. These are dual-processor quad-core Xeon (2.8 GHz) servers, each with 32 GB RAM. Three have been deployed already and two more have been ordered.

“We can run the System p’s workload on blades with four times the efficiency,” said Rachal. “We use one as a terminal server to run thin clients at the desktop.”

He recently took the p670 offline during a SAN upgrade and got to see first hand just how much power it consumed. In all the years since its arrival in Alexandria, the System p has demanded that the 15-ton under-floor cooling system by American Power Conversion Corp. of West Kingston, R.I., be always fully on. When it was off, the standby battery life on the APC UPS unit went up from 21 minute3s to over an hour. Further, the cooling system powered down for the one and only time since he worked there.

The move from System p to Intel-based blades was made easier by the fact that the IBM has embraced the Linux platform. That made it relatively simple to switch the city’s Oracle database over to Linux and enabled a change to the latest version IBM Lotus Notes and Domino to take advantage of its improved collaboration capabilities.

And like the System x, Alexandria experienced big savings on maintenance.

“The money we will save on maintenance contracts on the System p over the next three years would pay for our blades nine or ten times over,” said Rachal. “By May, we will be in full production.”

And in three years, when his current gear is out of warranty, he has no doubt that he will continue to replace his hardware with newest models. To his mind, it no longer makes sense economically to try to extend hardware lifespan via maintenance contracts.

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