Drive IT Costs Down with Server and Desktop Virtualization

February 13, 2009

The more I visit with my clients I see the effect that server virtualization is having with credit unions. 4 years ago when I started recommending virtualization strategies all I heard was crickets. Now the tide has changed and literally the only question to ask oneself is, “Why am I not virtualizing?” In today’s environment the reality is, that questions are being asked, “can I do more with less?” VMware and Microsoft Hyper V give credit unions this flexibility.  I have a few items that I list below which I believe need to be brought to the table prior to implementing virtualization. I am going to be writing more on this subject over the next few weeks. Virtualization is analogous to a carpenter buying a ¼ inch drill bit. A carpenter doesn’t want a ¼ inch drill bit; what he wants is a ¼ inch hole. No one wants virtualization. What people want the benefits of virtualization. Here are a few of them and some planning questions to ask.

  • What actual hard costs are you looking to save? For example, I have a client who was adamant about not doing virtualization until midway througha data center upgrade project shesaid to me, “how canIsave onsome rack space? I don’t want to buy another rack ifI don’tneed to.” I replied by pointing to 4 servers and saying, “those 4 servers can all be virtualized into one.” These were very old Microsoft 2000 and 2003 servers that she has no intention of upgrading on the short term. Walla – she saves on rack space, cooling costs, server hardware costs, etc.
  • Snapshot VMs – consider if this is one of your goals.
  • If HA (high availability) and snapshot’ing of VMs is important you will need to look at iSCSI SANs as a backend to the Virtual Servers in order to enable this functionality.
  • Consider HA with virtualization on your LAN. I have several credit unions that love this. They have long term goals of growing the environment to support FR needs,etc., but on the short term all they want to be able to do is server consolidation and have a more stable and reliable server infrastructure.
  • They want to be able to do server upgrades and patches and have instant recovery to application failures

I have worked with Joe Fletcher with Johns Hopkins Federal Credit Union for several years and I think one of the ways to review the value of a technology and a strategic path chosen is to see it in action. Joe is a strong IT credit union leader in the mid atlantic area and has experienced the following benefits from VMware virtualization and iSCSI SANs. Here is a listing of his successes:

  • Budget, he has been able to cut costs significantly because of the recent increase in web servers. His core processor is requiring the CU’s to provide more hardware for web based applications than ever before. My client has been able to virtualize all of these applications. He also upgraded many of his older servers to new version of Windows without the expense of buying physical hardware. Finally, he was able to build this environment in one budget cycle by adding the hardware costs for the core required web servers and reaching the same total as purchasing two LeftHand SAN’s, VMware enterprise licensing and HP Procurve Gig Switches.
  • He is thrilled with performance of the machines and the ease of setup, both on the VM and LeftHand side of the fence. VM to VM performance has been great; and he is upgrading core switching to increase the other performance. He has also been working with his core providers to virtualize other applications to improve performance.
  • Consolidation. With old core systems having to remain up for 6 years and a lack of space in general the ability to get rid of 15 servers has opened up the datacenter, making airflow better, making the DC cleaner and giving them room manage the servers without stepping over machines.
  • Disaster Recovery. This meets his overall goal of portability and recoverability. Eventually the branch office will have a replicated SAN and ESX hosts for recovery in the event of a disaster or more likely a small issue like power failure or hardware issues.

iSCSI SAN Business Case

June 27, 2008

 I just spent my entire week at the Burton Group Catalyst conference in San Diego, California ( Burton Group has the best industry analysts and researchers in security, identity management, virtualization and the SAN industry.

The number of Virtualization Hypervisor vendors vying for position is exciting. Clearly VMware is in the lead and the immediate safe bet for credit unions. However, with the purchase of Xen Source by Citrix there is no doubt that Citrix is going to be a major player with their XenApp server. Virtualization is here to stay for many reasons, but for credit unions the major areas of impact are:

  • Cost savings stemming from data center server consolidation;
  • Compliance – Disaster Recovery accomplished with server mobility and portability that a virtual infrastructure brings;
  • Ease of desktop management using VDI (virtual desktop infrastructure);

I really don’t think that Fiber Channel SANs should be even considered for credit unions unless they have a legacy investment in Fiber Channel technology. iSCSI SAN technology is necessary for credit unions to really take advantage of the compliance and disaster recovery benefits of virtualization. Credit Unions today need the following to build a business case for an iSCSI SAN:

  • Easy administration;
  • Supportable with current IT staff and current IT skills;
  • Scalable for production virtualization and DR needs;
  • Affordability;

What are the benefits of an iSCSI SAN?

  • Runs over the current TCP/IP Ethernet network;
  • Reduces network infrastructure costs by reusing existing infrastructure;
  • Uses generic 1GB NICs and switches;
  • Reduces SAN complexity and increases manageability;
  • Reduces cabling costs;
  • Reduces outside integration support;
  • Increases Disaster Recovery options by using routable TCP/IP technology and there are no distance topology restrictions;
  • Leverages existing network services in QoS, DNS, VPN and MPLS investment;
  • Leverages more of the current in-house credit union IT staff talent;

The big argument from FC fiber channel SAN vendors is that iSCSI is not as fast as FC. This is true, but is irrelevant unless you are a $3 billion or larger credit union. In my opinion credit unions worth $200 million to $3 billion in assets will not strain iSCSI to the point that this is even an issue.

There are ways to make iSCSI faster if needed: software initiators, TOE NIC adaptors and iSCSI HBA. See the Chris Wolf site for more great information ( also includes good virtualization and iSCSI information as well. 

Credit unions that have an existing investment in FC SAN will want to protect this investment. Soon you will be able to bridge your iSCSI SAN to your FC SAN using the protocol FCoE (Fiber Channel over Ethernet) but this protocol and the bridge gateway switches needed to do this have not yet matured.

Let me know what you think.

CASE STUDY: How to Recession Proof Your Credit Union with Strategic IT Spending

April 21, 2008

Here are a few “what-if” scenarios for your IT vision:

*What if your IT infrastructure were “plug-n-play”?

*What if your IT infrastructure were “portable”?

*What if your countless data bases were “portable” and “consolidated”?

*How would your DR and infrastructure spending change if you knew that $1.00 in spending could gain you critical compliance momentum regarding DR, infrastructure, and security?

*What if these databases were replicated to your DR facility on the same platform as your Exchange/email and file systems?

*What if you were able to buy less hardware?

*What if you had a two-year roadmap of technical and reality-based spending to support this vision?

In today’s lean business climate, credit union executives must ensure that every dollar of day-to-day operational and compliance IT spending is doing triple duty within DR, infrastructure, and security. So what is your vision?

How would you get started? A story about a client of mine comes to mind that you might think of as a real-world case study direct from the trenches. I had worked closely with this client in late 2007 and early 2008 to formalize their strategy with Infrastructure, DR, WAN, Security, Citrix, VoIP and databases.

It is important to note that this credit union created the technical roadmap, design, and architecture that they wanted to pursue. They submitted their objectives to the SAN vendor community based on what they wanted to accomplish rather than doing the rounds and gathering opinions.

Seeking a Desired Solution

After deciding on a lowest common denominator for what their needs were, the credit union determined that they had a two-part goal. The first phase was to implement an iSCSI Storage Area Network – SAN at their Headquarters and DR facility according to the criteria listed below. The second phase was to create a “portable” and ‘plug-n-play’ infrastructure using VMware virtualization.

Overview of Current Environment Problem

The credit union was experiencing storage growth issues in the following areas:

1. Email;
2. Knowledge Base;
3. VoIP System recording data;
4. Imaging system data base;
5. IT Software (media storage);
6. Instant messaging;
7. Voice mail;
8. Fax;
9. File Servers;
10. Security (IDS logs, FW logs, internet logs);
11. Databases (Member Account Statements, Visa Statements, check copies, financial reports, statements);
12. Scalability regarding how to deal with the growing storage;
13. Unconsolidated storage (SQL data base proliferation);
14. Compliance with future regulations (future GLBA), retention, and archiving;
15. Cost to maintain multiple backup solutions;
16. Tape encryption;

The Requirements

The credit union wanted to purchase an iSCSI SAN in order to accomplish the following:

Primary Goal 1

Eliminate Iron Mountain tape costs
Eliminate isolated tape back-up solutions for:

i. Microsoft systems;
ii. The Synergy system;
iii. Core system;

Eliminate recurring maintenance costs for backup software
Ease staff storage management
Accommodate growth
Enable data encryption
Data storage consolidation for:

i. Imaging data base;
ii. Microsoft databases;

Consolidate file storage
Operations replication of live data between Headquarters and the DR facility
Backup replication between headquarters and the DR facility
Comply with current and future IS&T NCUA regulations
The system should be able to support future email archiving functionality

Primary Goal 2

Create a “portable” infrastructure accomplished using virtualization with VMware technology.

In a future entry, I will examine the questions that this very visionary credit union CIO asked himself — with a little help from yours truly — as he went through the budgeting and planning process for technology platform changes. I will review the overall roadmap and execution plan that was developed as we worked together to present an overall IT strategy for his credit union. Questions like the following were asked:

What do I do with my Citrix environment when using VMware?
When do I move to Exchange 2007? How does this impact my SAN and virtualization?
What impact does this SAN have on my switching infrastructure?
What good is my new plan without an MPLS network?
How will an MPLS network react to replication traffic?
How will my VoIP traffic be impacted?

In this entry I have reviewed strategy as it relates to the SAN and virtualization. The critical concern is to maximize the value of your investments. A planned approach results in an optimized situation for IT as well as for the entire business.