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Keeping things simple

Network complexities created by server farms rob budgets and kill innovation. Implementing a strategy called server simplification will fix this problem.

November 1, 2005  

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The server farm is the most visible manifestation of the complexity plaguing IT infrastructure today, and complexity is a thief.

It steals resources that could be used to cut project backlogs. It robs budgets, reduces service levels, and sometimes even creates security risks across the network.

In short, it can have a devastating impact on an IT manager’s ability to innovate.

In recent years most IT managers have seen their budgets stay flat or decline. It’s little surprise then that companies such as IBM Corp. have seen a dramatic demand for solutions that attack complexity.

“IT Simplification” has become a prevalent theme. Where did all this complexity come from, what does simplification mean, and what are the benefits?

IT Infrastructures are rarely the product of intelligent design. Most have evolved, often painfully, sometimes irrationally.

As businesses looked to technology to deliver competitive advantages, applications were often adopted with little consideration for existing skill sets, middleware preferences, server strategies, or sometimes even the involvement of the IT executive. Branch offices and divisions often acquired technology on their own, and mergers and acquisitions frequently mangled together disparate cultures, infrastructures, application stacks and IT preferences.

Inherited complexity

By 2005, most IT managers were not part of the evolution; they inherited its complexity.

A simplification strategy attempts to reduce complexity across the entire IT infrastructure — servers, operating systems, databases, applications and networks.

It attempts to reduce the number of management points in a given architecture, though it’s not always obvious where the complexity lies. It is logical that 10 e-mail servers would be less efficient and cost-effective to own than two.

What is less apparent are the benefits of skills concentration, which is another important element of simplification.

Diluting The IT Skills Base: Most studies agree that management costs dominate IT expenditures, with some consultants estimating that the acquisition of technology represents less then 20% of the total cost of ownership.

As an example, while the cost to license database software can be $75,000, the annual total cost of an administrator for that database can be as high as $160,000 a year — representing by far the greatest expenditure over the life of that investment.

It follows then, that if administration costs dominate IT expenditures, it must also dominate the focus of any effort to drive greater IT efficiency.

One of the ways administrative costs can spiral out of control is when we allow skill sets to fracture. Ask an Oracle database administrator to also manage DB2 and Sequel Server, and you are diluting that person’s skills.

Each one of those databases — or even different versions within a single database — will have their own intricacies. The learning curve can quickly become unmanageable. Concentrating skill sets is the best way to ensure that we not only solve business problems, but choose the shortest path to do so. An expert produces better results than a jack of all trades.

Reducing Costs, Enabling Innovation: Simplification solutions often lower costs by bringing better policies and utilities to administrative tasks, such as change management and storage management. Other savings include software licensing, reductions in power, air conditioning and floor space.

Those lower costs are often the justification for simplification projects. But there is another entire category of benefits from simplification, generally referred to as enablement.

Enablement refers to initiatives that would not be possible without simplification of the IT environment. In the simplest form, these come from driving administrative efficiencies, so that the focus of IT staff increasingly becomes delivering new services and business logic, rather then just keeping the lights on.

Brains, Brawn, and Server Consolidation: A sub discipline of IT Simplification is server consolidation. Because server proliferation is perhaps the most visible indication of IT complexity, it is also usually a major focus in any simplification project.

Current industry trends suggest that there are two dominant server consolidation solutions — brains and brawn.

Virtualization technology (brains) is quickly finding its way into every industry, with customers of every size.

Virtualization offerings recognize that the vast majority of servers in a typical server farm are idle.

The average CPU utilization for an Intel server is less then 10% and less then 20% for Unix servers. In organizations that have not made the migration to Storage Area Network technology, even storage capacity tends to be vastly underutilized. Products exist that allow you to take a large physical server and carve it into multiple virtual servers, each provisioned with just as much capacity as the given application requires.

The On Demand Operating Environment: Beyond just performance and availability, virtualization solutions also enable new modes of system management, service deployment and provisioning.

When IBM CEO Sam Palmisano ushered in his On Demand vision at IBM, a major distinction of the “On Demand Operating Environment” was the responsiveness of a virtualized architecture.

Organizations evolved from having their IT architecture dictate how it is deployed, to letting the needs of the business dictate how the architecture is to respond.

Change management offers a good example of the responsiveness of a virtualized environment.

When rolling out service packs, fixes or application upgrades, virtualization allows the administrator to duplicate the entire virtual production server dynamically.

Changes can be applied directly to production data. If successful, the original is deleted. If unsuccessful, the duplicate is destroyed, and an immediate fall back is available in the original server, eliminating the risk typically associated with change management.

Change management is made significantly less time consuming, less risky, and as a result, the organization is enabled to shorten change management cycles, deliver new capabilities sooner, and realize ROI for the solution earlier.

But virtualization is not available to every application. Some applications may be dependant on architectures that do not support server virtualization.

The virtualization solutions available for some operating systems cannot deliver sufficient service levels, or have I/O performance limitations that restrict their utility. Some software vendors will only certify their solutions on dedicated hardware. Finally, applications that have very large CPU requirements may not be cost effective to virtualize.

Blades Are The Brawn: If virtualization is the brains of Server Consolidation, then the brawn is provided by Blade Servers. Blades are known primarily as high-density server solutions, with density referring to the amount of space the server fills.

Space considerations become increasingly important as data centres fill up. When the data centre is full, your next Intel server can easily require over $500,000 to build a larger facility.

The chassis of the blade center allows for virtualization of networking, hubs and switches, provides a common, high-performance, fault-tolerant interface to fiber-based storage area networks, and finally, hides all of the cabling that typically keeps the heart of a server farm beating.

That’s important because upwards of 70% of all Intel server outages are caused by cabling issues. Blade Center targets these outages by eliminating the cables all together.

The Road Ahead: IT Simplification offers organizations significant advantages, charting a path that enables elimination of management points and concentration of skill sets across the entire IT environment.

Simplification is not a project. It is a set of projects that will often take years to complete. As part of a simplification strategy, virtualization offers dramatic cost advantages and enablement benefits, compared to a physical server farm.

The reach of virtualization will continue to grow, pushing across architectures and operating systems.

At the same time, Blade technology is the new benchmark for Intel server density and reliability.

Long term, the goal of simplification is to strengthen, or in some cases, reclaim Information Technology’s place as a centre of competitive advantage for the enterprise. To make that happen, IT managers must eliminate enough of the burden of management so that resource limitations are no longer a limitation on innovation.

Matthew Schellenberg is a server consolidation manager, iSeries Americas with IBM Canada Inc. Based in Markham, Ont., he can be reached at