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UNC-Chapel Hill Information Technology Services has continued its journey into server and storage virtualization with a next-generation virtualization infrastructure. ITS accomplished this by:
1. Realigning staff to better support the work load
2. Adopting automation strategies to create efficiencies
3. Making a deliberate focused investment into Infrastructure as a Service

Matthew Conley of ITS 2015
Matthew Conley “Virtualization is a proven software technology that makes it possible to run multiple operating systems and applications on the same server at the same time.”

Why consolidate servers

The idea behind server consolidation is to install many servers in one space, or in this case, within ITS’ two data centers–at ITS Manning and at ITS Franklin. To avoid using up all that space, ITS had to become more efficient with each server. Nearly a decade ago, ITS began accomplishing this through virtualization. One ITS hypervisor—also called a host—could run seven or eight virtual servers on a single box. Today, each host can run more than 80 virtual servers, enabling ITS to fit 600 or more virtual servers in a rack as opposed to 40 physical servers, said Matt Conley, Virtual Architect with ITS Infrastructure & Operations.

ITS’ early virtualization efforts

ITS started the virtualization journey in 2005 during the Franklin data center remodel. The goal was to retire old hardware and shrink the footprint of the data center. ITS started with three physical servers and three storage arrays and was able to move four racks worth of computers to a single consolidated rack.

Alan Gerber
Alan Gerber

“With a modest investment, ITS had some modest savings and recovered valuable floor space in the data center,” said Alan Gerber, Automation Specialist with ITS Infrastructure & Operations.

ITS continued to invest in virtualization over the next several years as it continued to see the value in server consolidation and life cycling. By 2013, ITS had more than 1,000 servers run by separate teams.

“ITS examined the amount of physical equipment needed to run this amount of virtual infrastructure and determined that the growth path for the next 1,000 virtual servers was not sustainable with this model. ITS needed a true hardware virtualization strategy,” Conley said.

So ITS did several things. It aligned the separate teams to use the same infrastructure and processes. ITS adopted an automation strategy to deliver that infrastructure. The department also adopted a converged architecture on which to run compute work. With guidance from Research Computing and some aggressive pricing, ITS purchased Cisco Unified Computing System (UCS) infrastructure in late 2014.

Upfront investment was considerable

UCS was a substantial capital cost, Conley said. That investment let ITS drive down its overall hardware cost by only 10-15 percent upfront. But as ITS continues to move work toward UCS, the department needs to buy less hardware. Consolidating virtual storage and servers into a more integrated system requires less physical space, cabling and power. Storage, CPU and RAM, however, are much cheaper if you buy in bulk. For that reason, ITS invested $1.5 million, into the 2015 deployment. Two identical UCS deployments were set up–one each at ITS Manning and ITS Franklin. Each could replace 600 physical servers. The average cost of each of those 600 physical servers was $1,600, he said.

Savings passed along to clients

UNC-Chapel Hill ITS virtualization growth chartBy making a substantial upfront investment to consolidate virtual storage and servers into a more integrated system, ITS has deepened its commitment to virtualization, significantly reduced its average cost per server and has passed that savings onto clients. That, in turn, has enticed additional University groups to enlist ITS to host their servers, Gerber said. ITS hosts more than 1,360 servers. “The Cisco Unified Computing System is a next-generation data center platform that unites compute, network, storage access and virtualization into a cohesive system designed to reduce total cost of ownership (TCO) and increase business agility.”

ITS is now 75 to 80 percent virtualized, Conley said. ITS uses about 80 percent of the hosting service for its own needs, with the remaining 20 percent for external campus customers. The split used to be more like 70 percent, ITS, and 30 percent, campus users. Big customers, however, left in an attempt to save money by investing in their own equipment.

But as a result of that bulk purchase of UCS, ITS was able to reduce its prices in spring 2016. Some schools and departments saw their bills cut by as much as 75 percent.

Next steps

“We will continue to automate use and management of virtualization to gain the most benefit from the infrastructure,” Conley said. “This includes backup and restore, provision and reclaim processes, networking and security. We also will continue to test new storage technologies looking for speed, replication and cost benefits. In addition, we’re looking to enterprise cloud services to find efficiencies in process or outright savings.”

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