Creating a sustainable IT infrastructure

CE May 2010 » Web Exclusive
Centralizing data and applications with a wide area network cuts costs and increases efficiency.
Eric Faucher

Across the board, information technology (IT) managers are being tasked with lowering costs and increasing the efficiency of their firms' overall infrastructures. The good news is that these goals can be met with a focus on sustainability. Wide area network (WAN) optimization, server virtualization, and shared storage are three technologies that can address these requirements. Centralizing data and applications in one location rather than across multiple locations of an organization reduces hardware footprint and conserves valuable resources. The key to doing this successfully is for users to be able to access data and applications with the same ease over the WAN as they did previously when it was on the local area network (LAN) . WAN optimization solutions make this possible. Using server virtualization to migrate applications from physical to virtual machines and consolidating these applications onto shared physical hardware has the effect of increasing utilization of server resources such as central processing unit (CPU), memory, and disk, resulting in a need for fewer physical servers. Shared storage offers green benefits with better disk utilization and deduplication of data.

S E A Consultants, Inc., is a multi-disciplinary, full-service engineering, architecture, and planning firm serving five sectors — energy, higher education, municipalities, state and federal governments, and transportation — that has been providing creative and strategic design solutions that balance human and social needs with environmental stewardship since its founding in 1956. (Editor's note: In November 2009, Kleinfelder acquired S E A Consultants, which is now doing business as Kleinfelder/S E A Consultants.)

Improving collaboration and workflow in a sustainable framework
With S E A Consultants' core focus on sustainability, it came as no surprise that when it was time to update the company's IT infrastructure recently, Bill Corley, CIO, sought solutions that would not only satisfy the needs of the business but would support the environmental stewardship value. Engineering firms rely heavily on CAD files and often store multiple terabytes of data. It is critical to the operations of the business that these files and applications be efficiently managed, well protected, and readily accessible to multiple users who need to access them. Corley's solution needed to address his charge from S E A's CEO to deliver IT services seamlessly to employees as "one company" across seven locations in a manner such that "it doesn't matter where you sit."

Corley set out to implement a solution that would truly allow S E A Consultants to better deliver its services. He wanted to improve collaboration, workflow, and communication to prospects and customers. Corley knew that this needed to be a well-thought-out plan with scalability that would keep up with the company as it grew. To accomplish these goals, Corley engaged Broadleaf Services, a Massachusetts-based systems integrator and value-added reseller that specializes in data storage, virtualization, and continuity solutions. Corley worked with Broadleaf to design a phased project that centralized all data and virtualized the IT environment.

Reducing hardware footprint
As a first step, S E A, with headquarters in Cambridge , Mass. , and six other offices, centralized all of its applications and data at a secure data center. Centralizing the applications and data simplified the management process and reduced the hardware footprint. It was no longer necessary to have an IT expert at each branch location to manage infrastructure there. There was significant cost savings of not maintaining an IT infrastructure in each office, and accordingly, the environmental benefit of not having duplicate hardware spread across seven locations. It is also easier to back-up data in one location, and better data protection means less data loss and downtime for engineers. The key to a successful centralization project is that users can access the data and applications for their work over the WAN with the same speed that they could over the LAN when IT infrastructure was in each branch.

Broadleaf recommended a WAN-optimization solution that enabled S E A to accelerate the performance of its applications over the WAN by a factor of 20 and reduce bandwidth utilization by 74 percent. These application performance improvements ensure that remote users can successfully access consolidated data and applications, while the resulting WAN bandwidth optimization ensures IT managers that they can minimize or offset the need for additional bandwidth investments. Users will feel as if they are getting the performance of a local infrastructure, while the organizations get the benefits of an IT infrastructure that is consolidated, such as lower costs, more security, and eased regulatory compliance. According to Corley, "Centralizing the storage of our project data — which was key to enabling cross-office collaboration — would simply not have been possible without the WAN-optimization solution provided by Broadleaf."

Server virtualization cuts energy costs
Once the IT infrastructure was centralized, Corley moved to the next phase of his project, which was to virtualize the servers in the environment. Virtualization lets users run multiple virtual machines on a single physical machine, sharing the resources of that single computer across multiple environments. Different virtual machines can run different operating systems and multiple applications on the same physical computer. With server virtualization, S E A was able to consolidate 20 physical servers down to four. The result was that S E A reduced annual energy costs by $13,000 and slashed its annual carbon dioxide emissions by 175,000 pounds — equivalent to planting 400 trees or taking 30 cars off the road every year.

In addition to achieving sound environmental objectives, server virtualization has provided S E A with more flexibility and resiliency in its IT infrastructure. Instead of the old model where one application resides on one physical server, virtualization encapsulates an application in a file format and allows multiple applications to run on one physical server. This allows for greatly improved utilization of hardware and provides the ability to provision new applications in minutes, rather than weeks, when a new server is required for a new application.

Server virtualization has eliminated much of the planned downtime that historically has diminished productivity for businesses. Previously, when servers required maintenance, employees were unable to continue working. Now, a virtual machine can easily be moved to a different physical host while the one requiring maintenance is not in use. Employees are not even aware that anything is different. The same holds true for unplanned downtime. With any type of glitch in a system, the virtualized machine is quickly and easily recovered on another physical host and worker productivity continues — especially critical near a project deadline.

To take full advantage of the benefits of server virtualization, an organization needs to implement a carefully chosen shared-storage solution as well. Corley, in the server virtualization portion of his project, initially utilized some existing storage but found that it did not satisfy his requirements for the virtualized environment. The in-house solution was not scalable, so he again sought the engineering "know how" of the Broadleaf team to look at storage options.

Ultimately, he selected a solution that provides network attached storage (NAS) and storage area network (SAN) capabilities on one platform, allowing the flexibility to manage both files and databases easily. SAN or NAS devices move storage out of the server to a storage pool shared over a network, increasing reliability, flexibility, and ease of management.

Snapshots and replication, features of the latest generation of these devices, are at the heart of most effective disaster-recovery strategies. Disaster-recovery capabilities are measured by the amount of time it takes to re-establish services and the amount of data loss. Snapshots capture the state of a storage system at a point in time; replication copies the state of one storage system to another. Snapshots can be made multiple times each day, providing recent points of recovery in the event of data loss or corruption.

With the combined server and storage virtualization solution, S E A has achieved increased application availability, better data availability, and improved backups. Backups provide the key to recovery in the case of data loss. The challenge with traditional backup methods is that the data is "dated" — backups are typically run at night after employees have gone home. If a loss occurs part way through the next day, hours of work can be lost if recovery is from last night's data. With the snapshot capabilities of an appropriate shared-storage solution, recovery is at a much more granular level. Depending on the snapshot schedule, data may be recovered from just a few minutes prior to the loss. Using snapshots for recovery allows traditional tape backups to be reserved for archiving purposes only.

Less storage
With this shared-storage solution, Corley was able to implement a combination of SATA and SAS drives. SATA drives are denser with more capacity, but they don't have quite the performance of SAS drives. By combining the two types of drives, Corley was able to meet environmental objectives of having less hardware where possible with the SATA drives, yet also meet the business performance needs with SAS drives where necessary. Using higher-capacity drives can significantly alter the storage power equation. Typical SATA disk drives consume about 50 percent less power per terabyte than Fibre Channel or SAS drives. They also offer the highest available storage density per drive, further helping to minimize power consumption.

It is worth noting that even without server virtualization, implementing a shared-storage solution supports environmental goals. In some cases, file servers can be eliminated with NAS devices, resulting in a reduction in hardware needs. When SAN devices are required, servers with less internal storage can be used to reduce the number of disks needed. The appropriate shared-storage solution can also provide deduplication to further reduce disk usage. The average disk volume has a tremendous amount of redundant data; eliminating extra copies of redundant data frees up disk space. Deduplication helps to save energy by reducing the need to add more storage capacity continuously.

Meeting sustainability goals
Using WAN optimization, as well as server and storage virtualization, to create a uniform computing environment, Corley has successfully achieved his charge from S E A's CEO to deliver IT services seamlessly to employees as "one company" across seven locations in a manner such that "it doesn't matter where you sit." All workers can accomplish their goals with the same IT performance. The elimination of hardware in branches with WAN optimization, the reduction in servers at the data center, and the associated reduction in power and cooling from server virtualization and shared storage have allowed S E A Consultants to achieve its business and IT goals while supporting its focus on sustainability. Summing up, Corley stated: "Broadleaf has been a key technology partner for S E A over the past several years. Their deep understanding of technology and our needs has led to deploying systems that live up to their promise to deliver true business value."

Eric Faucher is vice president of client solutions for Burlington, Mass.-based Broadleaf. He can be contacted at eric.faucher@broadleafservices.com .


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