Ontario health-care agency tries virtualization

An Ontario government health-care agency said it has been maintaining a high availability and cost effective server infrastructure through virtualization technology.

In a roundtable discussion, hosted by Microsoft Canada with customers and partners at IDC Canada’s Virtualization Forum in Toronto on Wednesday, executives outlined the benefits and challenges in moving to virtualized environments.

Ken Sutcliffe, director of IT services for the Ontario Association of Community Care Access Centres (OACCAC), manages 14 care centres around the province as well as over 250 offices. Servicing 8,000 members, Community Care Access Centres (CCACs) provide a government-funded, local point of access to health-care services. Sutcliffe said that one of the reasons the OACCAC moved toward a virtualized infrastructure was to manage its budgets and keep total cost of ownership down.

“Traditionally, if we needed more server power, we’d buy another server,” Sutcliffe said. “But, as we’ve grown, especially in needing application delivery, it just wasn’t cutting it anymore. So, we looked at being able to turn servers into a service as opposed to into a piece of hardware.” And according to Sutcliffe, this “server as a service” approach is especially vital when dealing with such a scattered IT environment. He said that spread across the 250 CCAC offices, the organization has many of its servers situated in concentrated pockets.

“Maybe 70 of those offices are main offices where you’ll find a decent server presence,” Sutcliffe said. “If we need to add another server for the CCACs to run a particular application, we’d effectively have to buy 70 new servers. But with virtualization, we’re able to rapidly, and for really the cost of licensing, provision the same computing power that they would have gotten bringing in the full price of hardware.”

Sutcliffe also said that because the local CCACs manage sensitive personal health information, the issue of high availability is a crucial one.

“We wanted to make sure that in the virtual environment that we had the high availability characteristic that we’re used to building in our data centres,” Sutcliffe said. “So, we’re able to buy good high-end servers to host and then we’re able to build virtual machines just the same as if we were using physical servers.”

And this is where Microsoft hopes its virtualization offerings will gain traction with customers looking to manage their virtual servers in the same way they always have. Recent news out of Redmond has the production version of Windows Server 2008, which ships next February, including the beta of Windows Server virtualization technology; code-named Viridian.

Microsoft has also been pushing its System Center line of server products, which includes its System Center Virtual Machine Manager 2007. The software is Microsoft’s first specifically designed to manage VMs on a network, and tweaked licensing for its system-management products to take into account virtualization.

It will be generally available in October as part of Microsoft’s System Server Management Center suite of products.

According to John Oxley, director of community evangelism at Microsoft Canada, the software is designed to give IT managers a clear picture of how their environment looks, in much the same way that they would manage physical servers.

“When companies move to virtualization they are really putting something into the clouds where it’s unknown,” Oxley, said. “When people look at management in a physical world, they don’t want to look at it any differently in the virtual world. They want the same representation and they want to manage it in the same environment because they don’t want to introduce any more costs or complexities.”

Andy Papadopoulos, president of IT solution consultant LegendCorp and a Microsoft partner, echoed Oxley and said that one of the biggest concerns for his clients interested in virtualization is with keeping things simple.

“People don’t want to own 27 different tools and 15 different vendors because they don’t want to increase the complexity of their infrastructure,” Papadopoulos said. “Because companies have concerns out there with even finding decent IT staff out there and getting them trained, they really don’t want to move to an environment that brings more complications. Every Microsoft partner out there should be looking at the virtualization aspect because it’s something that their clients want to talk about as well as something that’s going to be in the CIO’s top 10 list.”

Papadopoulos said that with Virtual Machine Manager, Microsoft’s virtualization support has gone from “good to great” and could allow the company to become formidable competition for virtualization giant VMware.

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