E-learning outfit takes virtual lesson

Web-based financial education firm Canadian Securities Institute (CSI) has learned a lot about doing more with less, virtually.

When 32 of its Windows NT machines were reaching the end of lifecycle last year, CSI saw an opportunity to consolidate its server environment and optimize the use of its IT resources. Server virtualization allowed the Toronto-based company to retire its 32 servers and replace them with just four Intel Xeon dual-core processors on Dell PowerEdge servers.

The server count went down, but server utilization and processing power went up, according to Randy Pond, director of IT at CSI. CSI layered VMWare’s ESX virtual machines onto its new Dell PowerEdge servers, allowing its IT staff to create multiple instances of operating systems that can run its Web Course Tools (WebCT) application for its 40,000 e-learning program enrollees.

CSI began rolling out these virtual servers in the fall of 2005 and is now reaping the benefits, but the transition was not without resistance from the CSI users. The project manager from the company’s accounting department, for instance, was not completely sold on virtualization and wanted to upgrade the accounting system by simply deploying a new physical server, Pond said.

“But we’re the IT people and we wanted to make the most efficient use of resources and try things (differently and) not necessarily the old way, which is to deploy a server for every application. It would be a huge wastage to do that,” he said.

Once the users saw the efficiency that virtualization can bring — such as deploying a new operating system in just five minutes — it became a “pretty easy sell,” said Pond. In addition to the WebCT, CSI has also virtualized several other servers including the Apache, Tomcat and development servers.

CSI runs a mixed IT environment consisting of Linux, Solaris and Windows 2003. Prior to adopting a virtual environment, its servers were running at an average of five per cent utilization, Pond said.

With the virtualized environment, CSI’s new dual-core Dell servers are still at five per cent utilization, but that’s because they have five times more capacity than the old ones, explained the CSI executive. And the huge difference today is that the administrators are no longer stuck with underutilized servers, but can use the excess capacity to create more virtual machines, he added.

Managing the servers has also become less complex through VMWare’s VirtualCentre, which enables the administrators to oversee the activities of all the servers from one location, explained Pond. “It’s reduced the management overhead of going to physical servers.”

CSI is now among the growing number of Canadian organizations that benefit from virtualization technology, and industry experts believe the figure will grow even more. Market research firm IDC predicted that US$15 billion will be spent by organizations on virtualization by 2009, according to Debora Jensen, vice-president, advanced systems group, Dell Canada at a recent virtualization roundtable held in Toronto.

The advent of virtualization has led to a shift in application dependency, where the onus is increasingly moving away from the hardware to the software, said Michelle Warren, market analyst at Evans Research Corporation. “There is a possibility that hardware vendors can be negatively affected.”

She explained that because processing powers are increasing, one server is essentially performing more today than it was a year ago.

However, Warren said she doesn’t expect this phenomenon to dramatically affect server sales in the x86, single and dual-core market. Server sales in Canada are expected to grow by one per cent in 2006 from 157,100 units sold in 2005 to 158,980 this year. Next year is also looking good with sales expected to reach 162,700, the analyst said.

“Canada is a country of small businesses, so we use smaller servers and more of them, so that can help boost sales of actual servers. In the end, it balances out,” Warren said.

Leading the pack in server sales is Dell, with a 35 per cent market share in the space, followed by IBM and HP, both at 17 per cent, Warren said.

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