IT Saves the Data Center with VMs

Running multiple OSs on 2 servers lets InfoShare test and roll out applications at breakneck speed

Hear the word "interoperability" and you probably think of running a mix of Windows OSs alongside other platforms—for example, Windows Server 2003, Windows NT Server 4.0, Red Hat Linux, and Oracle. This sort of harmonious coexistence of OSs and applications has worked successfully for InfoShare—the IT arm and a wholly owned subsidiary of AtlantiCare, a healthcare organization based in southern New Jersey. However, running applications on multiple OSs requires numerous servers—and the physical space needed to contain them. A year ago, InfoShare sought a way to contain "server sprawl" in its data center and found a solution. Led by Roger Vann, a Technical Project Manager for InfoShare, the IT team consolidated applications running under several Windows OSs and Linux on about 160 servers onto multiple virtual machines (VMs) on two physical servers that run Microsoft Virtual Server 2005.

Solving "Server Sprawl"
"Our data center had already been expanded once recently, and still we were running out of space and power," says Vann, whose IT organization oversees network operations and application maintenance and deployment for AtlantiCare's health network of nearly 4000 employees and more than 50 locations. "We had a number of ongoing projects, a lot of maintenance, and some new projects in the pipeline." The data center servers ran applications on a variety of OSs—primarily Windows (Windows 2003, Windows 2000 Server, and NT 4.0), but also several applications that ran on Red Hat Linux and one that used an Oracle database. The data center facility didn't have room for one more box.

"That's when we decided to look at virtualization," says Vann. Instead of physically enlarging the data center—a costly choice that would require adding numerous electrical outlets and considerably increasing its electrical power consumption—Vann and his IT staff opted to evaluate VM products. By implementing VM software, InfoShare could consolidate servers by running different guest OSs in multiple VMs on the same box. VM software is typically installed on top of the base (host) OS and works by implementing a software layer (the VM) that emulates the hardware (i.e., the BIOS and various devices and controllers) for the guest OS.

Vann and Eileen Hambrecht, Director of Systems and Programming for AtlantiCare, first contacted IBM, which had partnered with VMware, about evaluating VMware GSX Server around September 2003. Shortly thereafter, Vann and Hambrecht spoke with Microsoft, which had recently acquired VM software vendor Connectix and was adapting and rebranding Connectix's Virtual PC for Windows 5 as a Microsoft product. After comparing the products' licensing costs, InfoShare decided that participating in Microsoft's Technology Adoption Program (TAP) as an early adopter and evaluating the Microsoft Virtual Server 2005 Release Candidate (RC) was the more cost-effective option for InfoShare and AtlantiCare. (Virtual Server 2005 was scheduled to become generally available on October 1, 2004.)

Consolidate, Interoperate
A large part of the appeal of virtualization for Vann and his IT team was that VM technology would let InfoShare continue to run Windows and non-Windows OSs alongside one another. "We have some legacy applications on NT 4.0 systems and three Linux systems," says Vann, in addition to many applications that run under Windows 2003 and Win2K Server—about 20 applications in total. InfoShare also wanted to speed up the process of testing and rolling out applications. Furthermore, InfoShare was implementing a large-scale migration of AtlantiCare systems to Microsoft Exchange Server 2003, Microsoft Systems Management Server (SMS) 2003, and Active Directory (AD). Vann hoped that consolidating numerous physical servers into VMs running on two or three boxes would let IT focus on these essential projects rather than on managing dozens of servers and help InfoShare perform the migration more quickly.

InfoShare's IT staff found Virtual Server 2005 easy to install and use. "The product is very easy to learn and work with because it has browser-based management tools," says Vann. Consolidating and testing the OSs and applications under Virtual Server 2005 took about 2 months, and last December InfoShare brought its first Virtual Server 2005 server online. At present, InfoShare is running 25 VMs on one 8-processor IBM eServer X445 Series server and 8 VMs on another duplicate system. (IT purchased three servers for the consolidation but has needed to use only two of them so far.)

Data Center Rescue
Virtualization has achieved everything Vann and his IT staff had hoped for. Although Vann and Hambrecht are reluctant to think of themselves as heroes, they acknowledge how much server consolidation and the use of VMs has benefited not only InfoShare's IT operation but AtlantiCare and its employees. "Virtualization gives us a lot of room for expansion," says Vann. An even more important advantage of running VMs is that it lets IT deploy new servers that it uses to test and deploy new applications in minutes instead of the weeks that were required for testing and deployment before the server consolidation. "Before virtualization, it took a long time for us even to get a test system into the data center because of the ordering process, the physical handling of the server, and the amount of paperwork that we had to do," says Vann.

VMs are also helping InfoShare navigate its extensive migrations. "Virtual Server 2005 is helping us make these moves a lot more quickly by eliminating much of the hardware that we would have needed for the migrations," says Vann. Running the applications in VMs lets InfoShare build and replicate test environments. "We can quickly replicate the environment because we have virtual domain controllers (DCs) that are able to carry over the entire AD schema," Vann says. Four of InfoShare's five DCs are virtual, and many services—such as DHCP, DNS, and WINS—run in VMs. Another critical service that runs in a VM is an Oracle drug-interaction−checking database that's part of a larger application called Computerized Provider Order Entry (CPOE). Pharmacists in AtlantiCare's health system use the database to check prescriptions for drugs that could interact harmfully with one another. InfoShare also runs several Linux applications, including a homegrown Web-based application that uses a back-end MySQL database. Vann extols the speed at which
InfoShare deployed this application. "After the request \[to develop the application\] came through, we got the requirements for it together in one day and built the VM to run it in one day." Soon thereafter, IT deployed the application on Linux.

Platform Independence
Now that InfoShare has been running Virtual Server 2005 successfully for almost 1 year, Vann and his staff can't imagine life without VMs. "Virtualization has really improved our ability to respond to users," says Vann. Upcoming projects for InfoShare include identifying systems for consolidation—taking older servers offline and moving their OSs and applications onto VMs—and moving file and print services to AD and VMs. For InfoShare, VMs have proved to be a fairly painless way to achieve interoperability while reducing hardware purchases and maintenance costs—and even more important, to deliver IT services to users faster than ever before.

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