Extreme Makeover for Data Centers

By Bob Violino  |  Posted 2011-10-03

Data centers are beginning to look quite different from the energy-guzzling, inflexible server farms of the past. Many organizations are leveraging server virtualization, energy-efficient systems, or integration between internal data centers and public cloud services to boost efficiency, reduce costs and increase business agility.

Data center budgets are actually on the rise this year, reports the Uptime Institute, a Santa Clara, Calif., organization that provides research, consulting and certifications worldwide to improve data center performance and efficiency. A survey of 525 data center owners and operators in the United States, Europe and Asia conducted by Uptime in early 2011 shows that 52 percent of the organizations expect their data center budget to increase this year compared with 2010, with 27 percent saying the budget will increase by more than 10 percent.

See also: Planning Your Data Center Strategy

But that doesn’t mean organizations aren’t looking for ways to make data centers more efficient and cost-effective—or that they don’t need to make improvements. More than one-third of the companies surveyed say that at least one of their data center facilities will run out of power, cooling and/or space in 2011 or 2012. What’s more, the survey indicates that one-third of the data centers in operation are currently understaffed.

Among the technologies enterprises are implementing or considering for data center improvements are cloud computing and virtualization. In fact, 74 percent of the data center operators are considering or deploying cloud computing, and 21 percent plan to implement a private cloud in the next 12 months.

The vast majority of companies have adopted a server virtualization strategy in their data centers, and “we expect that trend to continue,” says Julian Kudritzki, vice president of the Uptime Institute.

Virtualizing Servers

Imperial Sugar, in Sugar Land, Texas, is one of the nation’s largest processors and marketers of refined sugar. It began a virtualization project about five years ago, in part, to reduce the number of physical servers, says George Muller, vice president of supply chain, sales planning and IT.

“There was a proliferation of servers in the data centers: Web servers, network servers, database servers, production servers,” Muller says. “The client-server architecture caused [the servers] to multiply like rabbits.” Many of the servers were underutilized, he adds.

Through virtualization using software from VMware, Imperial Sugar reduced the number of servers from 131 to 96, and decreased its data center capital spending by about 45 percent a year. The company has also consolidated four data center facilities into one, reducing IT labor costs.

Another benefit is a lower energy cost. The company replaced some of its older servers with more energy-efficient blade servers from Hewlett-Packard, which helped reduce electricity and cooling costs. Muller says 75 percent of the physical servers in the data center are blade servers.

Imperial Sugar has begun migrating some applications—such as training and predictive maintenance systems—to public cloud services to further reduce its reliance on internal servers and the associated maintenance and support costs. “I think that’s one of the big advantages of the cloud today and why so many people are jumping on the bandwagon,” Muller says.

The company, like many others, has concerns about security in the public cloud. “But if it’s archictected correctly, the proper service-level agreements are in place, and you follow a strong and rigid checklist for [cloud] use from a security standpoint,” data should be secure, Muller says.

The current thinking about where to run applications has shifted dramatically with the advent of cloud services, and that’s had a huge impact on data centers, Muller says. In the past, “We would say, ‘We need to bring this [application] into the data center and figure out how much the hardware and software will cost,’” he says. “Now we think about which third-party hosting provider can run it for us over the Internet.”

Some applications and data, such as those involving finance, will remain inside for the foreseeable future, according to Muller. “But as we get more and more comfortable with [the cloud], I see us expanding it further,” he says. “My prediction is that we’re going to see 20 to 50 percent of data centers become extinct in the next five years.”

Becoming Environmentally Friendly

For now, organizations are aiming to make their data centers more efficient. Earth Rangers, a Woodbridge, Ont., nonprofit organization dedicated to educating children about green practices, has used virtualization and energy-efficient blade servers to make its data center a more environmentally friendly facility.

The organization deployed a virtualized infrastructure using technologies including VMware software, blade servers from Dell and continuous data protection software from FalconStor Software. The data center is housed in a 100-square-foot space, and by creating a virtualized environment on energy-efficient blades, Earth Rangers has saved nearly 85 percent of energy costs compared with a non-virtualized environment.

“We virtualized 48 servers on just three Dell blades, all within a single enclosure,” says Rob DiStefano, IT systems manager. “If we had used 48 1U servers, we would have needed a data center 10 times the size.” Earth Rangers manages its 65 virtual servers from a single console using VMware’s software.

The data center is housed in the Earth Rangers Centre, a showcase of sustainable technology that DiStefano says uses 80 percent less energy than a traditional building its size. The building incorporates an eco-efficient green roof, and Earth Rangers operates a VPN that enables more than half of its staff to work from home, another environmental benefit.

Another organization that’s aiming to increase the efficiency of its data center is St. Charles Health System, a Bend, Ore., health care provider. St. Charles launched a server virtualization effort about five years ago in order to increase reliability and minimize its dependence on internal IT support, says Dennis Martin, technical manager.

The company now operates more than 700 servers in its data center, half of which are virtualized. As it brings on new servers, about 60 percent will be virtualized. “In order to fit all [the servers] into a small footprint and minimize the costs and associated power, we needed to move to blade technology and virtualization,” Martin says.

St. Charles uses blade servers from Hewlett-Packard and virtualization software from VMware, and both have contributed significantly to increased server utilization and efficiency. The organization has seen a 30 percent reduction in data center energy consumption since the virtualization effort launched. The more efficient data center, maintained by BendBroadband, a local firm, has contributed to an overall saving of $7.1 million in IT operations over a five-year period, including a hardware refresh, says CIO Bill Winnenberg.

Another benefit is that St. Charles can maintain its IT operations with essentially the same staffing levels from several years ago, even though data volumes have grown. There is also greater stability. “We have the ability to fail over from one blade to another, or we can shuffle servers from one environment to another, manually or automatically,” Martin says. “Using a green facility has also enhanced our relationship with the community,” Winnenberg adds.

Cost and Community

Public sector organizations are under pressure not only to be environmentally friendly, but also to control spending. The county government in Fairfax County, Va., launched a server virtualization program in its data center about a year and a half ago, and has thus far reduced its physical servers from 870 to fewer than 300. The ultimate goal is to reduce the number of physical servers to fewer than 50, says Jeff Porter, director of infrastructure for the county.

To help determine which servers are good candidates for consolidation, the county IT department uses a software product called NightWatchman Server Edition, from 1E, which measures server workloads and identifies which servers are being underutilized.

Using VMware virtualization software, the county operates about 740 virtual servers. The biggest benefits are cost savings of $6.43 million in data center hardware since starting the virtualization effort; annual electricity savings of about $380,000; and improved server utilization (prior to virtualization, the server utilization rate was 5 to 10 percent, but it’s now about 70 percent.) “The number of [physical] servers we had was impossible to keep under maintenance,” Porter says. “The only way to get the budget under control was to virtualize.”

The Uptime Institute’s Kudritzki expects data center transformation efforts—including virtualization, green IT and cloud computing—to continue. “Most forward-thinking organizations are creating diverse portfolios” that include a mix of virtualized servers operating in a private cloud environment, and the use of public cloud services for some applications, he says. “The days of the monolithic data center, with one function and one level of redundancy, are waning.”