vForum 2011: Virtualization tips from the education department

The Department of Education and Communities’ Colin Pasfield spoke at this year’s vForum event

The NSW Department of Education and Communities (DEC) — formerly the Department of Education and Training — first dipped its toes into virtualization back in 2004

At the vForum 2011 in Sydney this week, DEC server virtualization manager, Colin Pasfield, shared the benefits the department has realised from the recent virtualization of its Tier-1 apps, with two of its data centres now 68 per cent virtualized.

These apps included Active Directory, Citrix for front-end of SAP systems, Exchange for staff and student email, Liferay Portal, SAP, SQL Server, and Tibco the enterprise service bus, where most of the department's apps communicate.

The department, with a portfolio including 2200 schools and 120 TAFE colleges, used vendor VMware’s ESX architecture to virtualize its infrastructure, resulting in 1300 virtual machines, 177 ESX hosts and 190 terabytes of SAN storage.

Some of the benefits, Pasfield said, include increased flexibility to improve server provisioning and reduced costs. According to Pasfield, the department has “avoided over $5 million in server costs alone, in addition to associated space, power and administration costs”.

However, he admits that although performance is “good”, managing the interaction of the SAN and virtualization layer is slightly cumbersome.

Pasfield said there were three things to be aware of when virtualizing infrastructure:

  1. Senior management sponsorship: Pasfield said that without the support of senior management, IT teams would be “pushed back”. “This was great for us IT guys because it gave green lights all the way down the virtualization road,” he said. “This made our job much easier. The top-down directive really clears the path of virtualisation.”

  2. Virtualization-first policy: This policy, Pasfield said, helped the department commit to virtualizing its Tier-1 apps. “This policy really said that default for new virtual systems will be virtual,” he said. “In many cases this last point was an ace up our sleeve in disarming request from the business to physical servers, and we can’t have a physical server because our data centres were full.”

  3. Buy-in from the business and server management teams: This last point was the most important one, according to Pasfield. He said the majority of push-backs they experienced actually came from the internal server management teams within the IT division. “These teams were confident in going through the performance of physical hardware,” Pasfield said, “but hesitant to do the same on virtual infrastructure managed by some other team.”

The teams' concerns included:

  • Will our vendor support this?
  • Will we get the performance we need?
  • How stable will our systems be?
  • Where’s all my hardware gone?

To resolve the issue, the department reviewed the success of their dev and test environments; looked at examples of case studies, whitepapers and other research; and for serious concerns about performance, the team reviewed and adjusted the virtual machines if required.

As a result of the virtualization process, it went beyond merely transforming the infrastructure to enable a more stable and flexible platform. It also changed the organisation culturally, with different teams working closer together and becoming more collaborative, and the people and processes adopted a more virtualized mindset.

So what’s next for DEC? Pasfield said the department will be working on better integrating the stack and automate server provisioning processes where possible.

“Are we aiming for 100 per cent virtualization? If it makes sense, then yes.”

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Tags governmentbusinessdecvirtualizationServer VirtualizationNSW Department of Education and CommunitiesvForum 2011

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