The Payoff

By Kevin Fitzpatrick  |  Posted 2010-02-04

When ROEL Construction needed a new cost- and energy-efficient solution that would centralize storage and be eco-friendly, the company opted for a virtual data center. Kevin Fitzpatrick, ROEL’s IT director, discusses the challenges, choices made and results of these efforts.

As a 90-year-old family-owned company operating in today’s roller-coaster business world, ROEL Construction strives to maintain its ideals and founding beliefs, which center on integrity, quality and trust. With more than 250 employees in five locations, including our headquarters in San Diego, we operate more than 25 job sites. Just fixing things that go awry in the normal course of business—a mistakenly deleted business-critical file or a server that is down—could take a whole week if we reacted to events as they happened.

Finding a way to proactively design our IT infrastructure to support the business, intercept problems before they occur and keep our company ahead of foreseeable IT challenges has been the key to making technology a driver of our success. One example is our effort to create efficiencies in our data center.

ROEL Construction is dedicated to quality, sustainability and innovation, and is committed to having a positive impact on the lives of our employees, customers and subcontractors. We believe we can make a difference on the environmental health and safety fronts, and we have established definitive, measurable methods to minimize our environmental footprint.

Applying this corporate sustainability initiative to our IT practices was crucial for many reasons. We felt that the data center at ROEL was a great place to make a major impact on our sustainable IT initiative.

Designing and implementing a greener data center made ethical sense and was in lockstep with the company’s mission and ideals. However, the initiative was not based solely in altruistic motives. Our business was also driving us toward the benefits we could achieve with an energy-efficient data center.

In the last decade, the technology the construction industry has used to bid on, design and complete projects has become more sophisticated, complex and data-intensive. The new tools and technologies have added dimensions to the IT infrastructure beyond the typical accounting database, CAD/CAM software, and e-mail databases that were the norm in the 1990s.

Bidding on projects today is much more graphically intensive, as clients expect the most realistic depiction of the project they want built. Once these image-heavy bids are submitted, our corporate retention policy requires us to store them for as long as 12 years. And because many projects are similar and elements may be used more than once, retaining files enables us to respond to bids more quickly, while keeping administrative costs low.

When ROEL is selected for a job, our teams use three-dimensional modeling software tools to build computer models that electronically anticipate costly project complications before any fabrication or on-site work starts. These building information modeling (BIM) tools generate excellent results, and the quality of work improves through the analysis and planning process.

However, these tools also generate enormous amounts of data. Since 2004, data has grown from between 300MB and 600MB per project to 30GB per project or more. The project data and plans must conform to our business-retention policy.

These changes in industry standards meant that data wasn’t going to stop growing. In fact, we estimate that our data will grow to three times its size in the next two years. We had two choices: Buy more storage or store the data more efficiently.

Growing Data, Shrinking Footprint

Our existing storage infrastructure was having trouble scaling to meet increased data demands. Difficulties with the storage infrastructure were causing performance to suffer, and project collaboration was becoming increasingly difficult.

In addition, the legacy environment required a significant amount of energy for powering and cooling. So the requirements of the business—handling enormous and growing amounts of data without disrupting performance—and the goals of our sustainable IT initiative intersected in the need for a new storage environment.

We looked for a storage solution that could scale to meet future needs, make data management easier, and provide the eco-friendly benefits of reduced power and energy consumption. Given the large volume of data being transmitted across each of ROEL’s five locations and 25 job sites, it became clear that we needed a new cost- and energy-efficient storage solution that would centralize storage and that could grow over time.

The benefits of both storage and server virtualization in terms of efficiency, hardware consolidation and energy savings seemed like the right road map for ROEL. So we assessed our existing storage area network (SAN) infrastructure, and after evaluating the different options on the market, we chose to implement a Compellent SAN in a VMware environment.

Persuading the senior management team to invest in a new storage and server environment was not difficult—once I explained that for the same price I would pay to upgrade our legacy storage system, I could purchase a new SAN to better manage data and support our eco-friendly practices. So we installed two Compellent SANs, and because of their iSCSI connectivity, we were able to save more than $40,000 at the outset instead of upgrading a five-year-old non-redundant Fibre Channel infrastructure.

The most dramatic benefits resulted from our ability to completely virtualize the data center. We were able to have four physical servers host 26 virtual machines, including file, SQL and other application servers, as well as Novell GroupWise e-mail and an e-mail archiving system. In addition to eliminating 22 physical servers, storage and server virtualization has reduced electrical usage for power and cooling by 80 percent, for a savings of $12,000 per year. Virtualization also eliminated the need for server upgrades, which would have cost more than $70,000.

Virtualization also reduced our cooling load from 4.5 tons to 1.5 tons, and extended the life of our air-conditioning unit. Finally, upon implementation, we submitted an application for a rebate and received more than $6,000 from San Diego Gas & Electric.

Being Prepared

Our prior infrastructure did not include a disaster recovery strategy, but the Compellent storage architecture made it easy and affordable to implement a disaster recovery solution. The primary SAN takes frequent snapshots of changed data, which takes up little space compared with copying entire volumes.

The snapshots are then replicated to our remote SAN using the Thin Replication technology. In the event of a technology failure or natural disaster, we would be able to recover the physical data and the VMware environment and start serving the company at our second data center site. Just knowing we’re ready for the worst helps me sleep better at night.

I also feel confident that in the best-case scenario, in which our business continues to grow, we are ready to handle the data growth that comes along with it. However, instead of having to project and buy storage capacity now, I can use the SAN’s thin-provisioning software to manage storage capacity more efficiently.

We don’t have to purchase physical capacity up front: We consume capacity only when data is written and install additional disk drives only when necessary. Thin provisioning gives us the flexibility to purchase data on demand and expand storage volumes with a few mouse clicks. When we grow, our storage grows—without a forklift upgrade.

The Payoff

Partnering with LANSolutions, a local solution provider, enabled us to plan and implement the project efficiently. The firm’s staff provided the information transfer that enabled our internal IT staff to be able to support and maintain the system.

Here are the results of our data center makeover:

• We eliminated 22 physical servers and the need for server upgrades, which would have cost more than $70,000.

• There was an 80 percent reduction in electricity usage; the kilowatt hours used went from 133,000 to 26,700.

• We achieved savings of $12,000 in annual power and cooling costs .

• San Diego Gas & Energy gave us a $6,000 rebate.

• We estimate a saving of $40,000 by choosing iSCSI —money that would have been needed to upgrade the Fibre Channel back end.

• We saved time and money by backing up centralized data, rather than having data scattered in various locations.

Being a responsible corporate citizen is vital to ROEL’s culture and mission. At the same time, earning and saving money and streamlining our operations are important to our business.

Our company’s goal to decrease our environmental footprint intersected perfectly with the business drivers and led to our data center makeover. Our results prove that there is a way to make doing the right thing pay great dividends.

Kevin Fitzpatrick has been with ROEL Construction for more than 17 years and has been IT director for the last 12 years. He has worked in the construction industry for more than 25 years.