Virtualize Everything

Have you ever seen someone run Windows on a Mac, simultaneously? We’re using the same technology in IT to¬†improve efficiency, cut costs, and reduce our footprint. This technology is called virtualization,¬†taking the physical and making it virtual, and it’s being widely implemented in IT departments everywhere. When people talk about “the cloud,” they are technically referring to a type of virtualization. Over the last several months, one of our mantras in the infrastructure/backend side of things has been “virtualize everything.”

On the fourth floor of the Ansin Building we have our central datacenter where the vast majority of the college’s servers live, as well as where “the Internet” pipes into campus. There’s even a window to it! If you’d like to see for yourself, it’s right off the elevator. It may not be as exciting as the Will & Grace set, but it’s the central hub of all technology on campus.

Inside are dozens of physical servers, our Isilon storage array, a lot of routers and switches which control networking, the ECWireless controllers, and many other key components of the college. It also houses a few servers that are hosts to a virtual server room. We have over 250 servers, but only a couple dozen of them are actually physical, touchable pieces of hardware, like your desktop. Instead, most of our servers are “virtual,” meaning it can share resources with other virtual servers on one large, powerful system, called a “host.”

Dozens of virtual servers can co-exist on a single physical host, the same way you can make a virtual copy of Windows on your Mac using VMWare Fusion, Parallels, or VirtualBox. In fact, we use an enterprise-level VMWare product, vSphere, to maintain our virtual servers. You can do all the same physical tasks like power on/off, install software, etc, for a virtual server through the vSphere interface.

Hosting servers virtually instead of physically cuts costs and improves efficiency all around. Moving to virtual servers eliminates maintenance costs for physical hardware, saves us money on operating system licensing, takes up no space (the ratio of virtual servers to the hosts which house them is around 30:1 right now), and uses far less power. Not only can we make new servers virtual instead of physical, but we can convert existing physical servers to virtual ones, which is exactly what we’ve done.

So far we’ve converted around 20 physical servers to virtual, and in doing so we’ve saved many thousands of dollars in support costs and reduced power consumption of the datacenter by around 10%. To the same end, we’ve flat-out removed servers that don’t need to run anymore because of age and/or because they’ve been replaced by new virtual servers. If the physical hardware isn’t too old, we sometimes repurpose it and move it offsite.

And we’re not done. Our aim is to have very few physical servers left, and only in roles which require dedicated hardware. The firewalls, for example, are physical, as are the ECwireless controllers. However, many of our web servers do not need to be physical. The entire web cluster only has one physical component. All of these efforts help improve efficiency while reducing cost, which is great for the college in general.

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