What IT pros like best about next-generation technology

Flexibility, costs savings and eco-friendly operations make the list

The flexibility, costs savings and eco-friendly operations from next-generation IT technologies like server and storage virtualization make enterprise IT executive’s list of best benefits.

Do hundreds of gallons of used vegetable oil belong anywhere near a data center, let alone inside? Phil Nail thinks so.

Game-changing IT technologies -- and how they affect the everyday worker

Phil Nail

Nail is CTO of AISO.Net, whose Romoland, Calif., data center gets 100% of its electricity from solar energy. Now he's considering waste vegetable oil as an alternative to using diesel fuel in the Web hosting company's setup for storing solar-generated power.

"We're never opposed to trying something new," says Nail, who last year eliminated nearly 100 underutilized stand-alone servers in favor of four IBM System x3650 servers, partitioned into dozens of virtual machines using VMware software.

Server virtualization fits right into AISO.Net's environmentally friendly credo. The company increased its average server-utilization level by 50% while achieving a 60% reduction in power and cooling costs through its consolidation project.

For Nail, virtualization technology lives up to the hype. Nevertheless, it isn't always easy for IT executives to find the right technology to help a business stay nimble, cut costs or streamline operations. Read on to learn how Nail and three other IT professionals made big changes in their data centers, and what they like best about their new deployments.

No more vendor lock-in

Vendor lock-in is a common plight for IT storage buyers. Lifestyle Family Fitness, however, found a way out of the shackles. The 56-club fitness chain in St. Petersburg, Fla., set out to resolve a performance bottleneck it traced to its storage network, and wound up upgrading its data center infrastructure in a way that not only took care of the problem but also extended the life of its older storage arrays.

Lifestyle's users were starting to notice that certain core applications, such as membership and employee records, were sluggish. IT staff confirmed the problem by looking at such metrics as the average disk-queue length (which counts how many I/O operations are waiting for the hard disk to become available), recalls Michael Geis, director of IS operations for the chain. "Anything over two is considered a bottleneck, meaning your disks are too slow. We were seeing them into the 60, 80 and 100 range during peak times," he says.

After rolling out IBM's SAN Volume Controller (SVC) last November, queue lengths settled back below two, Geis says. The two-node clustered SVC software fronts EMC Clariion CX300 and IBM System Storage DS4700 disk arrays, along with two IBM Brocade SAN switches. SVC lets Lifestyle combine storage capacity from both vendors' disk systems into a single pool that is manageable as a whole for greater utilization. An onboard cache helps speed I/O performance; SVC acknowledges transactions once they've been committed to its cache but before they're sent to the underlying storage controllers. (Compare Storage Virtualization products.)

A key benefit of virtualizing storage is the ability to retain older gear, rather than doing the forklift replacements typically required of storage upgrades, Geis says. "We didn't have to throw away our old legacy equipment. Even though we'd had it for a few years, it still had a lot of performance value to us," he says. Lifestyle uses the new IBM storage for its most performance-sensitive applications, such as its core databases and mail server, and uses the EMC gear for second- and third-tier storage.

Using storage gear from more than one vendor adds management overhead, however. "You have to have a relationship with two manufacturers and have two maintenance contracts. There's also expertise to think about. Our storage team internally has to become masters of multiple platforms," Geis says.

The payoff is worth it, however: "Now that I've got storage virtualization in place with the SVC, my next storage purchase doesn't have to be IBM. I could go back and buy EMC again, if I wanted to, because I have this device in-between," Geis says.

Heterogeneous storage virtualization gives buyers a lot more purchasing flexibility - and negotiating power. "Every time we add new storage, IBM has to work in a competitive situation," Geis says. "Five years ago, the day you made the decision to go with EMC or IBM or HP or anyone, you might get a great discount on the first purchase, but you were locked into that platform for three to five years," he says.

What Geis likes best is the flexibility the system affords and "knowing that I don't have to follow in the footsteps of everybody else's storage practices, that I can pick and choose the path that we feel is best for our organization."

Getting more out of existing resources

A key addition to Pronto.com's Web infrastructure made all the difference in its e-commerce operations. Fifteen million people tap the Pronto.com comparison-shopping site each month to find the best deals on 70 million products for sale on the Web. If the site isn't performing, revenue suffers.

Pronto.com wanted to upgrade its load balancers in conjunction with a move from a hosting provider's facility in Colorado to a Virginia data center operated by parent company IAC (which also owns Ask.com, Match.com and Evite, among other Internet businesses). The New York start-up invested in more than load balancing, however, when a cold call from Crescendo Networks led to a trial of the vendor's application-delivery controllers. (Compare Application Acceleration and WAN Traffic Optimization products.)

Load balancing is just one aspect of today's application-delivery controllers, which combine such capabilities as TCP connection management, SSL termination, data compression, caching and network address translation. The devices manage server requests and offload process-intensive tasks from content servers to optimize Web application performance. "Our team knew load balancing really well, but we didn't know optimization. And we didn't know that optimization would be something that we'd really want," recalls Tony Casson, director of operations at Pronto.com.

When Casson and his team tried out Crescendo's AppBeat DC appliances, however, they were convinced. In particular, the devices' ability to offload TCP/IP and SSL transactions from Web servers won them over.

A major benefit is that Pronto.com can delay new Web-server purchases even as its business grows. "It really has extended the life of our server platform," Casson says. "The need for us to purchase new front-line equipment has been cut in half. Each individual Web server can handle approximately 1.5 times the volume it could before."

Small investment, big payoff

IT projects don't have to be grand to be game-changing. A low-priced desktop add-on is yielding huge dividends for the Miami-Dade County Public Schools.

The school district installed power-management software on 104,000 PCs at 370 locations. By automatically shutting down desktops that aren't in use, the software has reduced the district's average PC-on time from 20.75 hours per day to 10.3 hours. In turn, it's shaved more than $2 million from the district's $80 million annual power bill.

Best of all, because Miami-Dade already was using software from IT management vendor BigFix for asset and patch management, adding the vendor's power-management component cost the district just $2 more per desktop. "There was very little effort to implement the program once we defined the operating parameters," says Tom Sims, Miami-Dade's director of network services.

Besides saving money, the power-management project has kick-started a new wave of green IT efforts - something that's as important to the school district's managers as it is to users. "We all want to save energy and keep the environment clean and functional for our kids, more so because we are a public school system," Sims says.

Today Miami-Dade is working on the program's second phase, the goal of which is to let IT administrators customize shut-down times on a school-by-school basis. That will result in more power saved and more reductions in carbon emissions.

Looking ahead, the district is eyeing the chance for even bigger savings by turning off air conditioning units in areas where desktop computers are powered off. IP-controlled thermostats will enable Miami-Dade to coordinate PC and air conditioning downtime. "The potential cost savings is even bigger than the desktop-power cost savings," Sims says.

For that to happen, the IT group has been working more closely with facilities management teams - a collaboration Sims expects to grow. "There are IP-driven devices that will interface with all kinds of facilities equipment. These devices allow remote management and control by a central office via the organization's data network. So, the possibilities seem limitless."

Staying green

Going green is more than a buzzword for AISO.Net, which from its inception in 1997 has espoused eco-friendly operations.

Other companies are buying carbon offsets to ease their environmental conscience, but energy credits aren't part of the equation for AISO.Net. The company gets its data center electricity from 120 roof-mounted solar panels. Solar tubes bring in natural sunlight, eliminating the need for conventional lighting during the day; and air conditioning systems are water-cooled to conserve energy.

As it did with its building infrastructure, AISO.Net overhauled its IT infrastructure with green savings in mind. By consolidating dozens of commodity servers to four IBM servers running VMware's Infrastructure 3 software, it upped utilization while lowering electricity and cooling loads. CTO Nail sold the leftover servers on eBay. "Let somebody else have the power," he says.

For Nail, green business is good business, and that's what he likes best about it. "Maybe it costs a little bit more, but it definitely pays for itself, and it's doing the right thing for the environment," he says. Customers like environmentally friendly technology too: "More and more companies are looking at their vendors to see what kind of environmental policies they have," he says.

Today AISO.Net is designing a rooftop garden for its data center; it estimates the green roof could reduce cooling and heating requirements by more than 50%. It's also looking for an alternative way to store solar-generated power. That's where the waste vegetable oil comes in. Nail wants to replace the company's battery bank, which stores power from the solar panels, with a more environmentally friendly alternative. The idea is to retrofit a small generator to run not on diesel fuel but on recycled vegetable oil acquired from local restaurants and heated in 55-gallon drums. The generator in turn would feed power to air conditioning units, Nail says.

The idea came from seeing others use waste vegetable oil to run cars, Nail says. "We figured, why can't we take that technology and put it into something that would run our air conditioning?" he notes. "We're kicking that around, trying to design it and figure out how we're going to implement it."

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