Nigel Fortlage thought moving his company’s IT infrastructure to a virtualized environment was going to be a one-off project.

“When we started the process, there weren’t any phases. It was simply a single event,” said the vice-president of information technology for GHY International, a customs brokerage and professional services firm headquartered in Winnipeg.

“But the more we got into it, the more we learned … it became a journey.”

Fortlage spoke at an IT World Canada Webinar, “Virtualization for All Firms, Big and Small,” sponsored by IBM Canada, last week.

GHY’s journey began in 2003. Phase 1 of what is so far a three-phase project focused on the company’s primary IBM iSeries servers, one of which held four xSeries blades. Fortlage consolidated workloads on the two servers, running IBM’s i5 operating system, AIX and a Windows environment for storage. Storage was consolidated, too, since “this particular platform is well known for having the ‘SAN in a CAN.’”

There were immediate paybacks. The new system was $30,000 cheaper than the infrastructure of high-end, redundant Intel boxes the company had originally envisioned. The number of servers more than doubled, though the IT head count remained at three. And that IT staff had been spending 95 per cent of its time dealing with issues in the server room. Now they were there only five per cent of the time.

Despite all that, Phase 2 was almost a no-go, and not because the business didn’t get it. In 2005, Fortlage himself recommended the status quo over consolidating the two boxes onto a single Power system, saying he didn’t see enough value to the business. But an executive vice-president overruled him. Given the value already delivered, the EVP said, “You can’t but go to Stage 2.”

And naturally, with Phase 2 completed, it was obvious that more could be done. This year and next, GHY will work on reining in its sprawl of Intel servers running windows and Enterprise Linux, virtualizing them on VMware ESX. Fortlage will add an nSeries SAN to further consolidate storage, and a management layer, IBM Director, to oversee the whole system.

According to Rick Kearns, a solutions consultant with IBM Enterprise Systems, while every application is different, “all workloads can be virtualized, just some at different levels than others.”

How to build that virtualized architecture is dependent not only on the applications, but customer conditions, too – what they’re trying accomplish, what skills are in place, what hardware they want to run it on – Kearns said.

One of the key drivers for GHY was the issues that kept IT in the server room reacting rather than focusing on the business.

“We went from a reactive environment, where 95 per cent of our time was spent on issues in the server room … down to five per cent,” Fortlage said. That allows the IT staff to devote more time to the business to create solutions that create efficiencies.

“As an organization of about 110 folks, we look at solutions that are saving everybody … that five or 10 minutes of time,” he said. For every 10 minutes per person he can save, that’s the equivalent of two full-time staff members.

For example, there’s the issue of dealing with spam. It’s easy enough for the end-user to delete the messages. Buy GHY’s gateway receives 1.1 million e-mail messages a month. Only about 75,000 actually get delivered to the users. At five seconds per e-mail to delete, blocking just north of one million spam messages in a month saves the equivalent of nine and a half full-time bodies.

Naturally, when Phase 3 of the virtualization journey is over for Fortlage and company, there will be farther to go. He’s looking at using VMWare’s VSphere to bring the Intel applications into an internal cloud.

“That gets the business used to the concept of a cloud within the business,” he said. “It really makes it easy to start looking at moving that cloud outside the organization.”

Fortlage is convinced than between five and 10 years from now, at least some of GHY’s system will be on an external cloud. The company is already using some software-as-a-service applications, and storage demands continue to grow; that plays well to the external cloud.

“The cost to continually keep up and maintain and develop things like disaster recovery, high availability … it really brings to light the need to understand how your organization can afford those costs,” he said.

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