Case Studies

6 Best Practices for Data Center Consolidation

When done in tandem — relying on a well-thought-out strategy — virtualization and data center consolidation can maximize your business's bottom line.
This story appears in the June 2010 issue of BizTech Magazine.
6 Best Practices for Data Center Consolidation
“You have to figure out the best way to use virtualization to consolidate the resources you have now, and you have to think about what you might want to do in the future,” says Massimo Zanetti Beverage’s Todd Hamlin.
Credit: Keith Lanpher

Major changes are brewing in the data center at Massimo Zanetti Beverage USA. In the midst of a phased data center virtualization and consolidation project, the coffee manufacturing company has also begun overhauling its enterprise resource planning system.

With so much going on with MZB’s mission-critical infrastructure, the IT staff is approaching the data center consolidation with a keen focus on best practices, says Todd Hamlin, manager of IT infrastructure in Suffolk, Va.

“As with any big IT project, planning is crucial,” Hamlin points out. “You have to figure out the best way to use virtualization to consolidate the resources you have now, and you have to think about what you might want to do in the future.”

Hamlin and other IT professionals offer advice on how to optimize the benefits and avoid the pitfalls of data center consolidation projects through virtualization.

1. Identify which resources to virtualize and where to put them.

Not all virtual machines work well together on the same physical machine, warns Hamlin, and some systems and applications should not be virtualized.

Consider hosting VMs that require extensive host computing resources with less CPU- and memory-intensive VMs. As an example, Hamlin points to standard relational database servers that typically do many read/write operations and use large chunks of memory for I/O functions.

“If you can put another system or two on the same host that is really low-end — some sort of utility or something else that won’t impact the disk or the database system — then that’s fine. But you always have to consider the mix you’re putting on the host,” Hamlin says.

Rigorous testing at near-maximum capacity is the only reliable way to learn whether you can virtualize specific applications and maintain acceptable performance.

Hamlin also advises against virtualizing apps and systems near the end of their lifecycle.

IT decision-makers who plan to virtualize more than half of their x86 production servers by 2011

SOURCE: "How Server and Network Virtualization Make Data Centers More Dynamic," Forrester Research (2009)

2. Assess all software licenses and vendor support, making any adjustments before you begin migrations.

Virtualization adds a layer of complexity to vendor relationships, and it’s crucial to revisit licensing and support agreements before a consolidation project begins, says Paul Coyne, director of technical sales for T-System, a Dallas company that specializes in emergency documentation solutions.

Infrastructure managers need to know much more than simply whether or not their systems and applications vendors support virtualization, he says.

“You need to know if the vendor supports your virtualization platform, how the vendor will monitor your environment and what kind of documentation they will want if you run their application virtualized,” Coyne says. “The answers to those detailed questions should then be part of clear and specific licensing and support agreements.”

3. Allow room for growth.

When it comes to sizing and provisioning computing resources such as RAM, CPU and storage, assess current needs and then add more from the start, Hamlin says.

Consolidation through virtualization creates efficiencies, but the process has to scale to support new projects and the growth of the business.

4. Focus on management.

Virtual server sprawl and other potential pitfalls can be controlled by establishing firm provisioning policies and the use of available management tools, says Alan Bourassa, CIO of EmpireCLS Worldwide Chauffeured Services in Norwood, N.J.

“You need tight controls around deployment and allocation of virtual servers, and then, from a management perspective, you’ve got a couple of choices: You can go the VMware instrumentation route or use Microsoft Virtual Machine Manager,” Bourassa says. “If you’re putting a Hyper-V environment in place, you’ve got to have some sort of software management services over that. Otherwise, you will go crazy trying to manage each individual virtual server.”

5. Rethink your power, cooling and space needs.

Even with a reduced number of physical hosts running at closer to capacity to support multiple virtual servers, consolidating the data center reduces the power and cooling footprint and leads to significant savings in energy costs, says Hamlin.

Which best describes how server virtualization has changed your energy consumption?

34% We’re definitely saving money by cooling fewer boxes.
31% We aren’t yet seeing much change in our energy consumption.
24% We think there are still some ways in which we might cut back our energy use.
11% Don’t know

SOURCE: CDW poll of 190 BizTech readers

Consolidation also saves space along with energy, but it’s important to configure the more compact data center with care, taking into consideration the heat generated by hard-working hosts and the future needs of the organization.

Power management and protection is even more critical in a virtualized, consolidated data center in which the loss of a single physical server can disable multiple systems and applications.

6. Make storage a prime consideration.

The availability and flexibility provided by a storage area network make SAN technology a wise choice for virtual environments, says Bourassa.

The cost of a SAN can, however, be prohibitive for some small to midsize companies, and other storage technologies, properly configured and implemented, can meet virtualization needs. Massimo Zanetti Beverage currently uses direct-attached storage but is considering a SAN, Hamlin says. One cost-effective option MZB is exploring is a virtual iSCSI SAN.

7. Ensure network connectivity.

Placing several VMs on a host with a single network connection is a recipe for trouble, Hamlin notes. Have multiple ports and adapters available, and keep in mind that some VMs need their own network cards.

8. Train the IT staff as early as possible.

During planning, identify training that will enable the IT staff to maximize the performance of the virtualized data center and deal with problems that might arise, says Bourassa. Then, start training well before the consolidation begins, he recommends.
Hamlin stresses the importance of preparing as many members of the IT staff as possible, both to eliminate delays and missteps by uneducated users and to realize the full potential of new technology.

“You don’t want one or a few people driving the virtualization project and find that nobody else in IT really understands the concepts,” he says. “And you don’t want to train only people from the infrastructure side. You want the applications people, too, so they can see how to use the technology for things like testing and development.”

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