College reaps rich rewards from creative environment

Palm Beach Community College is going virtual: virtual servers, virtual network and virtual storage. The college, which has 49,000 students and 2,000 employees, has nearly completed the rollout of a server and storage consolidation project that will eventually replace scores of servers with a new mainframe and two blade systems.

Though not yet complete, the US$1.6 million project has already allowed the school to reallocate its 60-person IT staff and cut data backups from 24 hours to just five hours.

Late last year, the school began the effort to replace a high-end IBM H50 mainframe, 70 Dell Intel-based servers and other hardware platforms with IBM BladeCenter blades running EMC Corp.’s VMware virtualization software and a zSeries 890 server, according to Tony Parziale, CIO at the community college.

Since the project began, Parziale has cut US$30,000 in monthly H50 proprietary software licensing costs. The new zSeries offering runs five Linux partitions that consolidate the college’s financial, human resources and facilities management applications, as well as its entire student registration and tuition system.

Parziale has also replaced an IBM Enterprise Storage Server, or Shark, array with a midrange DS6800 TotalStorage array running IBM SAN Volume Controller (SVC), which aggregates data from multiple disk systems into a 10TB data pool. Connected to the SAN, IBM BladeCenter runs Tivoli backup software to back up data in five hours.

Prior to the server and storage consolidation, the H50 mainframe ran Palm Beach College’s ERP system, and the Shark was the cornerstone of a SAN.

Charles King, principal analyst at PundIT Inc. in Hayward, Calif., said that although virtualization technologies such as VMware and SVC are mature, enterprises have been dragging their feet about turning to the technology for fear of data loss.

The Palm Beach College virtualization project is even rarer than most, King said, because technology from two vendors is being used together across a single infrastructure. Taking “relatively disparate products and [putting] them together in creative ways seems to me to say virtualization is finally here,” he said.

Parziale said implementing VMware on his servers and IBM’s SVC virtualization appliance in front of new Fibre Channel switches from Brocade Communications Systems Inc. has created some “territorial issues,” including user resistance to having to ask for increases in storage volumes. But the savings far outweigh the push-back, he said.

Parziale hasn’t calculated an ROI on the project because most of the old equipment was at its end of life. However, he said the project has greatly reduced workloads and eased management headaches.

Virtualization has helped free up the IT staff’s time for strategic initiatives like digitally imaging paper documents to the storage network. The effort is intended to help safeguard important information in the event of severe weather, which often hits southern Florida.

“Also, we’re always in a situation where we’re looking for new staff,” Parziale said. “This gave us the opportunity to reallocate our staff into other departments. The virtualization and dynamic allocation just makes it easier. There are a lot of things you don’t have to worry about anymore.”

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