Hardware Today: Collegial Consolidation

by Drew Robb

Bryant University went from 74 servers in three locations to 25 servers in one location. Instead of supporting six operating systems, it now supports three, and instead of a disparate collection of hardware, VMware partitions divide HS 20 blade servers.

Smithfield, R.I. based Bryant University likes to stay on the cutting edge of computing technology. According to The Princeton Review's list of "America's Most Connected Campuses" the school is now the second most connected university in the United States, up from No. 6 on its previous list.

To reinforce its position, the institution is moving from proprietary software to an open source platform based on Red Hat Enterprise Linux running on IBM eServer hardware. A variety of factors are driving the transition, including economics and the desire to streamline the number of supported technologies. The IT staff also sees the move to open source as an enabler of a broader technology education that will ultimately lead to greater job prospects in the future.

"As a small university, we are faced with the goal of staying on the leading edge of technology as an academic pursuit, while [also] faced with the constraints of a tight budget," says Art Gloster, vice president for information services at Bryant University. "Technology is relying on open source more and more, so we are preparing our students for it in the classroom and embracing it in practice."

Data Center Consolidation

Prior to the consolidation, Bryant University's three data centers contained 74 servers. The operations center housed the bulk of on-campus servers, which ranged from two RS 6000's to multiple Intel boxes, as well as a collection of Sun servers.

"We had a little bit of everything and not much of anything," says Gloster. "Sun, HP, IBM — you name it we had it."

Another data center, called "The Cave," was sited in a building basement. It had inadequate air conditioning and unconditioned power. The Cave contained 12 servers — a mix of stand-alone 2-way Intel and Sun 4-way enterprise servers.

The third data center was situated in a building known as the Bellow Center. It had a simulated trading floor and was used to train students earning a license to trade stocks. This was a brand new building with good air conditioning and acceptable power quality that contained 12 servers. According to Gloster, servers here were used at only a small fraction of their capability — with Intel boxes running at 10 percent or less.

Bryant University began its server consolidation efforts using IBM Intel HS 20 blade servers running Linux, as it wanted to move to a rack environment. It started out as a straight physical consolidation, the first phase of which included moving about 35 file, print, and application systems on to only 14 BladeCenter HS20 systems running Linux and Windows.

"We were running out of space in the operations room and wanted to eliminate the Cave," says Gloster. "So we went to the board of trustees to gain approval for a server consolidation project to take us from 74 servers to less than 25."

The first target was to move the computing resources from the Cave to the operations center. In the process of surveying the infrastructure present on campus, the IT department located four additional "stray" servers they didn't know about.

"When you start consolidation, you find that people have added stuff you didn't know about," say Gloster. "We found a scheduling system, a microfilming server, a food services server, and another that we had to add into the consolidation plan."

Bryant University began its server consolidation efforts using IBM Intel HS 20 blade servers running Linux, as it wanted to move to a rack environment. It started out as a straight physical consolidation, the first phase of which included moving about 35 file, print, and application systems on to only 14 BladeCenter HS20 systems running Linux and Windows. The HS 20's are 2-way machines with 4 GB of memory.

Gloster is very happy with the reliability of the HS 20's. The only difficulty reported was that some of the IBM resellers were not yet up to speed on the new machines. Bryant had to go to IBM directly to make some minor adjustments to improve system efficiency and add redundancy features.

The organization also cut down on the number of operating systems, eliminating Windows NT, AIX, and RS 6000. That left mainly Sun Solaris, Windows 200x, and Linux.

As part of the consolidation efforts, Bryant decided to phase out direct-attached storage. Its new servers now use a storage-area network in the form of an IBM TotalStorage DS4400 disk storage array. It already contains 3 TB, which Gloster expects will double in the next year.

"When we put up new systems, we boot them from the SAN," says Gloster. "This has made our backup much easier, as one guy can now take care of our backup needs."

The next step was harnessing VMware for further consolidation by creating virtual servers running on a single box.

"Everyone wanted dedicated machines for Web and other services," says Gloster. "We used VMware to consolidate four or five Web servers onto one or two boxes."

This virtual server strategy has been particularly apparent with campus ERP systems. Bryant was using SunFire and Sun Enterprise 4-way servers for a Solaris-based ERP system as well as Web applications. The ERP vendor, Sungard SCT, came out with a Linux version so some ERP functionality was migrated to the IBM HS 20 blades.

>> Interim Measures

Interim Measure

Although the IT staff at Bryant is happy with its Intel blades, it intends to transition to IBM JS 20 blades to accomplish yet more consolidation.

"We want to move from the H to the J blades for the sake of greater reliability and more robustness," says Gloster.

This is part of a plan to eliminate the servers at the Bellow Center so the college has only one data center. Already the entire network core has been consolidated into the operations center. In the meantime, two IBM P550 servers have been added as an interim measure. These are 4-way processors with 16 GB of RAM. Rather than VMware, Bryant is using IBM LPAR technology to create virtual servers. Five Sun boxes have been moved over to two P550 systems. In addition, another Sun machine used for messaging is being moved onto an HS 20 blade.

"We are waiting for certification of our Oracle database by Sungard in the next month or so we can run Linux on the P550."

However, this does not represent the end of the line on this initiative.

"We tested Sungard on the HS 20 and realized it wasn't the right platform for ERP," he says. "As we wanted to stay with blades, IBM recommended we wait for the next generation of Power blades — the JS 20."

Bryant plans to purchase JS 20 blades next year. It will have more processors and will be configured to operate beyond its traditional role as a supercomputing platform. Until those new models become available, ERP is being shared between Sun and HS 20 boxes.

By January, the goal is to have one data center for the campus. The following year, it will move to a brand new facility. At that time the consolidation program will be complete.

"Consolidation has meant that we have been able to take on the management of our network internally and add more applications such as VoIP without adding staff," says Gloster. "I'd estimate we have gained at least two FTEs by consolidating and minimizing the number of OSes."

This article was originally published on Monday Oct 3rd 2005
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