Virtualization drives real benefits at Canadian Securities Institute

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The Canadian Securities Institute (CSI Global Education Inc.) says its adoption of server virtualization technology has helped it to dramatically reduce the number of physical servers it uses, while providing e-learning services to some 40,000 students.

Server virtualization software from Palo Alto, Calif.-based VMWare Inc. has helped CSI to consolidate its operating systems and cut down the number of its physical servers from 97 to 62.

The virtualization initiative was spurred by the institute’s plans to upgrade its Web-based teaching software and phase out older hardware, according to Randy Pond, director of IT at CSI. He said CSI is upgrading from version 4.0 to 6.0 of its Web Course Tool (WebCT) e-learning software from Blackboard Inc. of Washington, DC.

When the WebCT 6.0 arrives, it will run on two recently acquired 2850 PowerEdge Servers from Dell Inc. of Round Rock, Texas. Another PowerEdge machine will be used as a development server, while a fourth is used to run other applications.

These four new servers will take over the workload of 35 older units that have reached their end of life cycle, said Pond.

He said VMWare ESX virtualization software layered over the PowerEdge servers is able to run multiple instances of WebCT 4.0 to cover the needs of the CSI’s 40,000 students.

Within CSI there were some pockets of resistance that held on to the one-server, one-application standard. But IT administrators soon found out that the new software allowed them to set up virtual servers in one day and deploy operating systems (OS) within minutes.

“They just needed to get their minds around the idea of virtualization. When they saw what it could do, it blew them away,” said Pond.

CSI began trials with the servers and virtualization software last year. The institute tested the technology for 60 days in its financial and accounting departments, and finally went live, deploying the software in critical areas last November.

“We retired 35 physical servers and hope to [cut] another 15 units in the near future,” Pond said.

John Schouten, enterprise technologist for Dell Canada Inc. in North York, Ont. said the traditional one-server, one-application model server utilizes only five to 15 percent of a server’s capacity. “By stacking multiple OS and applications over one virtualized machine you boost that server’s utility by 75 to 90 percent.”

Schouten said faster processors, higher interconnect speeds and applications supporting 64-bit computing are driving innovations in the virtualization field.

It is still possible to run multiple applications in a non-virtualized server, but this could cause performance issues, he said. “You don’t want your authentication system coexisting with you Web server and security system. You want to isolate them”.

One Canadian analyst says there is a shift in the kinds of servers being purchased by businesses. “With developments such as dual core technology there has been a compelling argument for companies to upgrade their purchases,” says Michelle Warren, an analyst for the Toronto-based market research firm Evans Research Corp.

The sales of traditional servers are growing at a low one per cent each year, according to Warren.

On the other hand, she said, enterprises are increasingly purchasing servers with Blade technology because of their powerful capacity.

Debora Jensen, vice-president of Dell Canada’s advanced systems group , said she expects sales of virtualization-enabled server to grow as they become more mission critical.

She said virtualization can lower hardware and operations costs by as much as 30 to 70 percent.

According to a recent International Data Corp. (IDC) study S390 servers and OS400 operating systems from IBM, as well as Unix-based systems, account for the bulk of customer spending on virtualization.

Spending on virtualization could reach US$15 billion worldwide by 2009, the study said.

The same survey estimates that more than three-fourths of all companies with 500 or more employees are deploying virtual servers.

More than 50 percent of all virtual servers are running production level applications, including the most business critical workloads, said IDC. CSI is taking extra precautions to protect its virtual servers.

As each virtual server now handles more traffic and data, Pond said it’s now even more important to protect the units with a good fail over mechanism.

Should one virtual server fail, its operations will automatically migrate to another server. For this reason, one server is kept running at a lower capacity to accommodate the emergency migration, Pond said.

“Fundamentally, virtualization is a piece of software. One needs to know how to apply the software properly to avoid problems,” said Schouten.

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