Servers

Remaking my server environment: Blade servers, virtualization, terminal computing

Server virtualization, blade servers, a new SAN, and terminal computing have the potential to transform an organization's server environment. See how one plan is coming together at a small college.

Over the next couple of months, my staff and I will be making some relatively significant changes to the computing environment at Westminster College. I thought I'd use this post to describe what we're doing and why and maybe give you some ideas about your own workings.

Server virtualization. Yes, virtualization is all the rage these days. From direct cost savings with regard to hardware to "green IT" initiatives, server virtualization projects are underway everywhere. In our case, the goals are to reduce the amount of hardware in our data center and to provide availability options that would have previously required more substantial implementations. We have already deployed VMware Virtual Infrastructure on two hosts in our environment, but they are running the version 3.0 Starter edition of the product, which means that they lack availability features such as Vmotion. As we move ahead with virtualizing more critical services, Vmotion becomes a key part of the scenario. In the next few weeks, we'll be upgrading to VMware Virtual Infrastructure 3.5 Enterprise, which has everything we need to move into the next phase of our virtualization efforts. SAN. In order to benefit from the availability features in VMware Virtual Infrastructure and to add availability capability to other services we provide, shared storage is a must. Today, we took delivery of two iSCSI EMC AX4 arrays--one with SAS drives for higher performance applications and one with SATA disks for other uses. Once units are in place, we'll begin migrating services to these devices. These units also provide full snapshot capability, which we can use for further service protection. Blade servers. Within the next few days, we'll be taking delivery of five new sets of Dell M600 blade servers and an M1000e chassis. These blades are extremely well configured and will be suitable for everything from virtualization to running a terminal services environment to general usage. Why blades? First of all, we secured absolutely incredible pricing from Dell, including the fully outfitted chassis. Even with 1U or 2U servers, we couldn't come close to beating the pricing we got on the full blade solution. Local storage on the blades is somewhat minimal--each is configured with a pair of 73GB, 15K RPM SAS drives with RAID 1. However, the total raw capacity of the new storage arrays is 13TB, so storage won't be an issue. Each blade server has four onboard 1 Gbps Ethernet adapters, two of which will be dedicated to storage.

Servers will connect to the SAN in a fully-meshed way for highest level of availability. On another side of the equation, blades provide us with a way to use less space in our very, very small data center. Further, adding new blades will be a breeze since everything is in the chassis. I've mentioned before that we're a small shop. Eventually, I think we'll have reduced the number of physical servers we support to less than 16, which is the maximum capacity of an M1000e chassis.

Terminal computing. Achieving a high level of service availability is one of the key components of this project. Part of the reason behind this goal lies in our intent to deploy a signficant (to us) terminal server infrastructure using Windows Server 2008 Terminal Services. There are numerous reasons for this direction. First, we have a desire to extend the "lab experience" for our students to their dorm rooms and beyond. That is, we'd like for them to be able to make use of the same software in their rooms that they use in the labs. However, we don't have enough licenses, nor do we have permission, to simply hand a license key and installation CD to every student. Therefore, we'll begin to make our licensed applications available through Terminal Services.

Second, we're looking for better ways to manage desktop computers on campus. For a number of administrative office users, a full desktop is simply not necessary. We will be able to provide better application support under a centralized model and, as is the case with students, location will be taken out of the equation. People can work from wherever they need.

Third, I'd love to extend the life of desktop computers on campus, or simply buy fewer units in favor of thin clients. Fourth, we had a professor come to us with a request for a new learning space. She wanted the ability to (1) Quickly deploy a full computer lab at will; (2) Deploy a lecture style classroom; (3) Deploy a classroom configured in a collaborative, team oriented style -- all in the same classroom space. We opted to provide her with Safebook laptop form-factor thin clients and tables with wheels on one end. The Safebooks were chosen since they're basically useless if stolen and were relatively inexpensive. Now, we just need the Terminal Services computing environment to support all of this!

Is this going to be a lot of work? You bet. But, the end result, if everything goes as we expect, will be absolutely fantastic! We're basically rethinking our entire computing environment and trying to deploy an environment that is more flexible, more available, easier to manage, and less costly.

I'd love to hear about some of your similar initiatives as I'm never averse to stealing good ideas! Use the comment space to share.

About

Since 1994, Scott Lowe has been providing technology solutions to a variety of organizations. After spending 10 years in multiple CIO roles, Scott is now an independent consultant, blogger, author, owner of The 1610 Group, and a Senior IT Executive w...

29 comments
serverguru
serverguru

Open Source Operating Systems and Applications run amazingly fast using Servaris ProSer M6100 Blade Server (http://www.servaris.com/servers_m6100.php). You got to just love the ability to export drives to multiple blades and, ability for LUN migration. Easy to setup fail over too. Using SSD Drives the power consumption was a lot lower than using standard Hard Drives. The other beauty is the Web Based Remote Management.

fredodouk
fredodouk

Hey Scott nice going, just wondering,you could consider the SunRay Clients on the thin client side. are u using generic VMware VDI?, doing IPSAN?

IT Generalist
IT Generalist

Do you also plan on virtualizing messaging, database or any other process intensive application and hosting it off of SAN? What about Domain Controllers and Active Directory? Is your SAN iSCSI based? I would appreciatte if you can shed some light on the assessment process, desgin and configuration. Thanks!

jgaskell
jgaskell

Using Terminal Services to get around licensing issues is generally not kosher. You need to be very careful doing this and make sure you are complying with the software licence as generally you will need a licence for every device that will access the software from the terminal server.

gordonmcke
gordonmcke

Why deploy two different SANs for high performance and archive applications? Why not use Compellent StorageCenter which can provide automated storage tiering in a single system?

darrell
darrell

What was the initial cost of the Dell blades and storage solution?

rajivkr7
rajivkr7

Good article John! We have the same setup at our organization as well - Dell 1955 and Dell 10G, VM 3.0.1 and SAN, and definately, I could see the positive difference in compare to tower servers. Few things on Dell blades(If you are opting for XEON processors) - ALL the quad core blades of Intel doesn't support HyperThreading. It's only available with dual core blades. See the link.. http://www.intel.com/products/processor_number/chart/xeon.htm VMWare: It has some limitations and some guidelines which are available..here ..http://www.intel.com/products/processor_number/chart/xeon.htm. You may want to go through it. Regards, Rajiv Kr. Srivastava Loc : India, Hyderabad

david.foye
david.foye

Hi Scott, excellent post. I look forward to hearing your progress. One question though, will you run every server in a virtualized environment, stored on the SAN & run on the blades? Or will you run some applications on the physical server (i.e. Terminal Services)?

jkallen
jkallen

Just curious - but why the Dell blades? I know you said price was attractive, but did you get competitive quotes? By looking at them, they have made a direct attempt to copy HP who is blowing away everyone else on the blade market these days. I'm personally leary of any new electronic product until it's been proven for a year or so - especially where all my eggs would be in one basket like blades. Dell hasn't done well in the blade market with their previous offerings (quality issues) which makes me scared of them now. So, please let me know if you looked at others (you may just be a Dell shop, and that's understandable to simply move to Dell blades) and also let us know what the unboxing and initial user epxerience is like. Thanks!

Scott Lowe
Scott Lowe

That will take a bit, so I'll make it this week's posting, but they're all great questions!

Scott Lowe
Scott Lowe

We're not trying to get around anything that would violate the terms of the license. For example, we have Windows, Office and TS licenses for all devices/users that would need them. We are also making sure that the software we intend to run is allowed/supported in a TS environment. We also use vendors' licensing services to help us stay in compliance.

Scott Lowe
Scott Lowe

There are always dozens of options for moving forward with any particular solution. In this case, after looking at the market and talking to vendors (including Compellent) I felt that moving ahead with the pair of AX4's was the best option for my organization.

Scott Lowe
Scott Lowe

The total initial outlay for the storage arrays, 5 M600 blades and a fully equipped chassis was under $60K.

g0ldeneye_88
g0ldeneye_88

around 70K USD, 4 blades, chassis & Equalogic iscsi SAN storage 3-4 TB

wild0104
wild0104

First just an FYI, you have the same link posted twice and both to intel's website. Secondly I know for our environment we've currently got just 2 vmware esx servers running, and our limiting factor by far is RAM and NOT cpu power. So the fact that the quad cores don't support hyperthreading wouldn't be an issue in my mind. Personally I'd rather have 8 cores w/o hyperthreading than 4 cores w/ hyperthreading (personally I was never impressed with the idea of hyperthreading).

Scott Lowe
Scott Lowe

David, The plan to start with is to run a mixture. The terminal services environment will run on physical servers, but will use the SAN for storage. We'll run as much as possible virtualized, though. I'll definitely report back as we move ahead. Scott

ben@channells
ben@channells

HP have a wider rage of options than Dell although the SAN controllers trend to lock up with VMware. IBM have a much bigger choice of CPU's than the rest, and have far more option of 1GB fibre connections, sadly lacking on both HP and Dell. despite being Mostly Sun, and HP the chose blades are IBM to replace the newish HP BL's. the chosen set-up being IBM blades, AMD Opetron, Windows 2003R2 (2008 still not out) presently getting ready to race VMware against ZenServer.

Scott Lowe
Scott Lowe

Though price was a driving factor, we are already a Dell shop and are extremely happy with the product, so it made sense for us to simply move ahead with the new gear. I'll definitely report back on the initial user experience.

jgaskell
jgaskell

I wasn't suggesting that you personally had your licensing wrong, just pointing out a trap that I have seen others fall into when implementing TS.

ajleap
ajleap

How many virtual desktops does 60K get you? How does licensinger figure in?

AstroCreep
AstroCreep

Last year (at my old job) we were looking into doing a very similar project to Scott, and the two contenders were HP nad Dell. The project fell through due to financial issues. I had actually read a LOT on each of them (including a review from one of the "IT Industry" magazines everyone gets for free) and both were very close as far as the "End Result" review; Dell came out a little higher on the performance where HP came out a little further with the options that the chassis/blade-center had (LCD status monitor and added functionality on the blade center). As far as "Track Record", Dell is on their 3rd or 4th generation of blades/enclosures now, so it's not like they're new to the game. They may be newer than HP or IBM, but that doesn't matter now. I'd be interested in seeing how some of the "Whitebox" blade-centers work...from manufacturers like SuperMicro. I've used SuperMicro servers before with good results. Just have to be weary as you don't have the same warranty piece of mind that you get from Dell or HP (with one-contact for any hardware problems).

Scott Lowe
Scott Lowe

For the needs we have, the Dell blades will meet 100% of them. As always, there are dozens of options out there and every organization has to make a decision that makes the best sense for them.

IT Generalist
IT Generalist

Scott --> In your post you said that "we will have reduced the number of physical servers we support to less than 16, which is the maximum capacity of an M1000e chassis" which I agree is really a good thing in terms of cutting cost and adminitrative overhead but, does it worry you if that chassis went bad, would you not loose the entire data center? What are your plans to over come such a situation?

jmarkovic32
jmarkovic32

I run Dell servers, HP Desktops and Procurve switches which are a better deal than Cisco for just regular layer 2/3 switches (free lifetime warranty and next day replacement--eat that Cisco!). I'm vendor agnostic. I go with whoever has the best solution at the best price for my environment. I just wish my company actually had an IT budget to do some of the projects I want.

Scott Lowe
Scott Lowe

I am happy you brought this up. I definitely wasn't trying to sound defensive! There are a million things to consider in a project like this and your point is a very good one!

judith.westbrook
judith.westbrook

Scott, Hi! I hope you remember me and that all is well with you and yours. I hope this reaches you. I am writing to you to request your permission to include your coaching information in my application for my Associate Coach Certification (ACC). I am completing my application for my International Coach Federation (ICF) Associate Coach Certification. The process requires me to coach 100 hours. I am to submit with my application the names of clients, the dates, and the number of hours I coached. Also, I am required to include the contact information for my clients. If you do not want me to use this contact information, i.e., your email address, then please send me alternate contact information. I include only this information in my application to verify my coaching hours. No personal information is, nor has been, disclosed to any other party. My records indicate that we met during the following dates and a total of hours: 4/29/2003 for a total of 12 hours. Please respond to this email that you concur with this record and agree I may include your information with my application. If you would prefer your contact information be changed, please indicate the changes in your email response. Thank you for the privilege to coach you. Please respond by April 17, 2008. Please contact me at Judith.Westbrook@noaa.gov. Thanks, jlw

Scott Lowe
Scott Lowe

I'll report back on that later on.

g0ldeneye_88
g0ldeneye_88

Dell - few boxes, takes quarter hour to set up to rack. HP & IBM - less than 70 boxes takes 2 to 3 hours to set up to rack

Scott Lowe
Scott Lowe

The only component in the M1000e chassis that is not redundant is the passive midplane. I've rarely seen passive components like that fail. Everything else, power supplies, fans, ethernet switches/passthroughs, is redundant. All that said, we will keep critical services redundant via VMware in a separate location on campus on separate hardware -- eventually. We're not there quite yet, but it is the eventual plan. Scott

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