Virtual field servers save CH2M HILL $3.2 Million

October 2010 » Web Exclusive

CH2M HILL, which provides full-service engineering, consulting, construction, and operations management services with 25,000 employees worldwide, was an early user of server virtualization technology to curb server proliferation and provide more agile IT services. It deployed Microsoft Virtual Server in 2004, and then switched to VMware ESX in 2005 as its applications grew larger and required a more powerful virtualization solution. Between 2005 and 2007, the company virtualized 350 servers in its Englewood, Colo., data center and 100 in regional offices.

Yet, by the end of 2007, CH2M HILL still had about 150 physical servers in Englewood and 1,000 physical servers in field offices. When the global economy plummeted in late 2007, the firm decided that it needed a more cost-effective virtualization solution.

“The company was cutting costs across the board, and we wanted to push forward with virtualizing more servers, especially in our field offices, but we just couldn’t do it with VMware,” said Greg Barton, senior analyst in the Enterprise Systems Group at CH2M HILL. “VMware licensing costs were too high, but even more expensive was staffing costs: We couldn’t afford to have VMware specialists in all our regional offices to manage that software.”

By virtualizing servers in field offices, CH2M HILL could not only pare costs but also extend high availability to applications running there, through the use of failover clustering. Even more important, the company could deploy servers more rapidly, which would enable local offices to roll out needed services and serve customers more responsively.

Solutions
In early 2009, the company began upgrading its mostly Windows-based servers to the Windows Server 2008 R2 operating system. Barton and his colleagues began to investigate the Hyper-V virtualization technology included with some versions of Windows Server 2008 R2 as an option for replacing VMware.

“We also looked at the Xen hypervisor, but when Windows Server 2008 R2 came out with live migration and other high-availability features, we decided that it had everything we needed and would fit best with our Windows environment,” Barton said. The live migration feature enables a server administrator to move a running virtual machine or application between different physical machines without disconnecting the client or application.

Barton also liked the fact that Hyper-V worked well with Microsoft System Center data center solutions, with which the CH2M HILL data center and field staff could manage and provision servers much more easily than they could with VMware. Microsoft System Center data center solutions provide IT administrators with tools to help centrally monitor and manage their IT infrastructure.

In October 2009, CH2M HILL decided to create a Hyper-V proof of concept. It called in Dell Global Infrastructure Consulting Services to help it set up a Hyper-V cluster running Windows Server 2008 R2 Datacenter and compare it with VMware VSX. The Datacenter edition of Windows Server 2008 R2 includes licensing for an unlimited number of guest operating systems as part of the host-server license.

“Working with both Microsoft and Dell, our hardware provider, lets us take advantage of their combined expertise and helps us deploy new technologies much faster,” Barton said. “They have knowledge that we don’t have and can help our staff come up to speed quickly.”
 
The team set up a two-node cluster using Dell PowerEdge servers with shared storage for implementing failover clustering and live migration. The staff tied the cluster to Microsoft System Center Operations Manager 2007 R2, already installed at CH2M HILL, and tested that product’s ability to generate hardware-level and application-level alerts on both physical and virtual servers.

“We were able to successfully move virtual machines between host servers according to System Center Operations Manager alerts,” Barton said. “In fact, we could do everything in Hyper-V that we could do with VMware. Hyper-V also compared well on performance and ease of administration. We were very happy with the results.”

The Microsoft-Dell team also used Microsoft virtualization planning tools — notably the Microsoft Assessment and Planning Toolkit — to evaluate the CH2M HILL infrastructure and determine physical and virtual server needs to ensure a successful migration from VMware. Barton’s teams also found documents and videos on Microsoft TechNet to be helpful.

In December 2009, CH2M HILL moved forward with a production deployment of Hyper-V and the migration of VMware virtual machines to its Hyper-V cluster, which was enlarged to four host servers — two, two-node clusters. At the same time that it deployed Windows Server 2008 R2 Datacenter with Hyper-V, CH2M HILL deployed Microsoft System Center Virtual Machine Manager 2008 R2, which it is using to migrate its VMware virtual machines to Hyper-V. System Center Virtual Machine Manager provides centralized, automated creation and management of virtual machines and the physical hosts on which they run.

To date, CH2M HILL has migrated 30 VMware virtual machines to its Hyper-V clusters and plans to have all of its VMware virtual machines migrated during the next three to five years. CH2M HILL runs a variety of operating systems on the virtual machines, including Windows Server 2008, Windows Server 2008 R2, Windows Server 2003, and Windows 2000 Server.

CH2M HILL is using its Hyper-V virtual machines for development and test servers and to run critical applications such as Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007, databases running Microsoft SQL Server 2008, Internet Information Services 6.0 and 7.0, and, soon, Microsoft Exchange Server 2010.

Late this year, Barton expected to start deploying Hyper-V in field offices and taking advantage of virtualization efficiencies to pare down the company’s 1,000 physical field servers. In its field offices, CH2M HILL will virtualize file and print services, Microsoft SQL Server databases, and older custom applications.

Barton’s team uses templates included in System Center Virtual Machine Manager to create virtual machines and to give business groups the ability to create their own virtual machines. “We use the self-service portal in System Center Virtual Machine Manager to let business groups create their own virtual machines as needed and manage them themselves,” Barton said. “This saves the IT staff a lot of time.”
 
The IT staff has also linked System Center Virtual Machine Manager with System Center Operations Manager to take advantage of the Performance and Resource Optimization feature in System Center Virtual Machine Manager. With this feature, Barton and colleagues can keep tabs on virtual machine performance and create policies that instruct System Center Virtual Machine Manager, or a technician, to make needed changes, such as allocating more memory or CPU resources, so that application performance never suffers.

Benefits
With the switch to Hyper-V, CH2M HILL expects to save more than $3.2 million in software licensing fees and hardware costs during the next three to five years. It will finally be able to push virtualization into its field operations to both save money and increase the availability of its field IT infrastructure. It also expects to trim the server management workload of its IT staff by 30 percent.

CH2M HILL expects to save $7,000 in VMware licensing costs for each two-node cluster, and it is looking to deploy as many as 40 clusters during the next three to five years.

“By switching to Hyper-V, we will save $280,000 in software fees,” Barton said. “Plus, we can now afford to tackle our 600 field servers and are aiming to virtualize 20 percent of these computers each year. At $5,000 a server, that’s a savings of $3 million over the next three to five years.”

The freedom to spread the advantages of virtualization throughout its broader organization is an important business benefit for CH2M HILL. “With VMware, we had to pick and choose which servers we wanted to virtualize,” Barton said. “Now, because Hyper-V is so much more cost-effective, we are free to virtualize everything, because the cost barrier is no longer there. This gives the business a greater ability to deliver new services faster to branch offices, ensure higher availability for applications running in branch offices, and reduce costs from our branch infrastructure, which continues to grow.”

In addition to the expected hardware and software savings, CH2M HILL anticipates an estimated 30-percent reduction in server management work by embracing virtualization more broadly. “We can reduce our server management work by 30 percent by reducing the number of physical servers that we have to touch,” Barton said. “This gives our staff more time to focus on strategic projects that add more value to the business.”
 
CH2M HILL created a centralized IT group to assume the remote management of branch-office virtual machines as the IT staff begins to deploy Hyper-V clusters in field offices. Even though virtual machine administration will be centralized, the field IT staff will be better able to help out with the care of their Hyper-V–based servers because of their familiarity with the Windows operating system.

“The regional IT staffs will have more time to manage the rest of their server landscape and start virtualizing local physical servers,” Barton said.

A key benefit of virtualization is the ability to set up cost-effective clusters that back up one another and dynamically move virtual-machine workloads from host to host to avoid hardware-induced application outages. Although CH2M HILL had been able to achieve high availability in its Englewood data center workloads with VMware, it is now able to extend higher availability to its field applications as well.

“We couldn’t afford to set up physical high-availability infrastructures at all our branch locations, but with Hyper-V, we can provide redundancy and failover capability for every application running in our branches,” Barton said. “This provides greater business continuity for every CH2M HILL office and, ultimately, better service to our customers.”

Barton pointed out that by deploying Hyper-V, the IT department at CH2M HILL is helping the company weather a tough economy by removing costs and boosting the bottom line. “Every dollar we save with Hyper-V goes right to the bottom line,” Barton said. “In that sense, we’re delivering an immediate return on investment.”

This article was provided by Microsoft Corp.


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