Less FERVOR For SERVERS; How Desert Schools Has Slashed Costs Related To Servers

MArch 27, 2006 This article originally appeared in:
Credit Union Journal

PHOENIX -- How many servers does it take to run a credit union?

For mid-size and larger CUs with multiple best-of-breed applications, it can take dozens of servers-even hundreds.

But the $2.6-billion Desert Schools FCU (DSFCU) runs one-third of its applications and systems on just four servers. Desert Schools may be the nation's only credit union relying on "virtual" servers. A virtual server has the same computing capabilities as a physical server - except there's no box to lay your hands on.

"Virtualization takes an entire physical machine and recreates it in software, including the operating system and the applications," explained Jeff Margolese, systems engineering manager for Vmware, a Palo Alto, Calif.-based firm providing virtual infrastructure software.

In conventional infrastructures, each operating system hogs an entire physical machine to itself. But up to 200 "virtualized" operating systems can sit side by side on four physical servers at DSFCU.

"That just goes to show you how underutilized most physical machines are," said Doug Baer, systems engineer, Desert Schools FCU. "Credit unions often have a lot of customized applications that are used by a single department just once a month to generate one report. And each vendor suggests that the application sits on its very own powerful server."

Not at Desert Schools. For example, one of those four physical servers at Desert Schools hosts 28 virtual systems, including a Microsoft Live Communication Server, Blackberry Enterprise Server, web servers, a help desk ticketing server, a credit report interface server, wireless controller management software, and a Vmware server.

Desert Schools doesn't rely on virtual machines just because they're "cool," said Baer. Virtualization can save money and space in the automated atmosphere of the United States, where the number of servers in the U.S. is expected to double by 2010, according to IDC, an analyst firm.

Desert Schools saved more than $100,000 on new hardware, maintenance, heating, cooling and space in less than one year of virtualization, said Baer. The savings will increase as the CU piles more systems and applications-potentially up to 50-onto one physical machine, he added.

So if the CU that dies with the most physical servers wins, Desert Schools FCU is in trouble. "As employees see the benefits of virtualization, the number of requests for new virtual machines is growing like crazy;" Baer said.

New virtual machines are easier to set up than their physical counterparts, Baer continued. "I can provision a new virtual server and begin installing applications in less than a half-hour," he said. "In the past, it would take me two weeks to get physical hardware and a day or two to install it."

New virtual servers are simply copied off of an existing server template. "I make a copy of the server and deploy a new version with just a couple clicks, an IP address, and a name," said Baer.

In fact, it may be a little too easy to set up virtual machines-they're appearing left and right, he said. "One of the challenges going forward is to organize the virtual servers," Baer explained. "We've started categorizing the different roles for each server and limiting the number of people who can create new virtual machines. But that challenge is something I'm still working on."

Not all of Desert Schools physical servers can be virtualized, Baer cautioned. Some servers may demand higher processing speeds, specialized hardware, or too much backup storage space.

Baer is particularly impressed by a Vmware feature called VMotion, which helps him keep all the credit union's systems running all the time.

"VMotion is the fun part," he said. VMotion lets Baer drag and drop live, running virtual machines from one host to another without interrupting the availability of any systems or applications.

"If I need to take one server down, I can use VMotion to move all the applications on that physical server over to a virtual server," said Baer. Then, I power down the physical server, maybe add some memory, and then move the applications back to the original physical server without any down-time."

Previously, Baer had to power down servers in the wee hours of a Sunday morning.