Case Study: Virtualization Delivers A Cost-Saving Lesson

Bowdoin College turns to virtual software as an alternative to a costly data center buildout. The decision saves millions, maximizes the school's flexibility to support a variety of operating systems

June 13, 2006

9 Min Read
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The IT staff at Bowdoin College was faced with having to double the size of the school's 500-square-foot data center back in 2003. Bowdoin's growing need for more services, more applications, and more servers was fast outpacing its capacity. But the $2 million price tag for the expansion was hanging heavy over the IT department.

"We were running out of floor space," Antonowicz says.

Without the funds to foot the bill but still pressed to expand, Timothy Antonowicz, systems administrator for the liberal arts college in Brunswick, Me., decided to take a different route. Antonowicz moved to consolidate the school's servers by implementing virtual software. This technology lets one physical server operate as multiple virtual servers, with each of the virtual servers able to run one or more distinct applications and even different operating systems.

In Bowdoin's case, turning to virtual servers saved floor space, investment in new servers, and the headaches and costs that would have come with expanding the data center. Antonowicz says Bowdoin only spent about $200,000 on its virtualization project--approximately $150,000 for 16 HP blade servers and the rest on VMware virtual server software. That's one-tenth the cost that had been projected for a more sweeping data center buildout.

Now two and a half years later, 70% of Bowdoin's applications are running virtually. Instead of running what Antonowicz expects would have been 101 physical servers, he has 46 servers, including 16 blades. Of those 46 servers, 10 are running VMware ESX software. Antonowicz figures the server consolidation and the move to virtualization saved the college from having to buy about 60 servers and from having to build onto the data center. In addition to avoiding purchases of new servers, virtualization also obviated the need for increased power and cooling, additional backup costs, and so on.

"It was a snowball we avoided," Antonowicz says. "When all was said and done, $2 million would have been a conservative estimate."

The server consolidation was one of several IT projects that has helped change the IT department's relationship with the business side of the college, which has 1,700 students and a total of 3,500 desktops and laptops to service. Mitchel Davis, chief information officer at Bowdoin, says that by getting major projects such as virtualization done at a fraction of the price of alternatives, IT has not only changed the board's perception of the department, but it has also helped change its entire function at the college."Building trust in the IT organization is one of the big things that I focus on," says Davis, who is the college's first CIO, reporting directly to Bowdoin's president. "It allows you the freedom to be successful. If you consistently do successful projects while cutting costs, it gives you the freedom to leap, and oversights disappear."

The college's board appreciates that Davis has been asking for less money in his budget every year. In 2003, IT accounted for 8% of the college's overall budget. The next year, that number went down to 7%, and last year it dipped again to 6%. Compare that with the department's campus-wide approval ratings, which have gone from 10% in 2003 to 35% in 2004 to a whopping 95% last year.

"Mitch has revolutionized the way people look at IT here," says Barry Mills, president of Bowdoin College. "I think those projects go a long way to building credibility and trust. But what builds real credibility is that a professor gets in the classroom, and the technology works. If something breaks, then they have it up and running again, and the class goes on."

Mills also notes that the board's confidence in the IT department took a sharp upswing when board members saw the server consolidation project put into place, as well as when redundancies, new financial systems, and new human resources services were added. "You can see the improvements, and that gives the board enormous confidence, and they're more willing to allocate the dollars to do that properly," he says.

IT is now invited to sit in on meetings in various departments around campus. It's in on the ground level on most projects, whether they deal with facilities, academics, or the business of running a college, Davis says."We're changing the culture as we're changing systems," says Davis, who worked at Stanford University before moving to Bowdoin. "If they believe in IT, they'll call us and engage us in their projects. Now we have the credibility to be a partner with business."

Part of building that credibility has been Davis' ability to do more with less in the IT department. When he took on the CIO role, Davis said he found a disheartened staff that wasn't trusted by other departments. A big part of the problem was that IT had a lot of responsibility for keeping the digital trains running, but largely lacked the authority to make it work. For instance, there were servers in the data center that IT wasn't allowed to touch--at all. The academic departments had their own IT workers. The library even had its own techie. Some servers were sitting underneath people's desks instead of being housed in the data center.

But that has changed over time. First, Davis took over all IT purchasing and has progressively asserted more oversight. And he's kept the IT staff working at a sprinter's pace making it all happen. Just months after his arrival, he started replacing the campus' 10/100 Ethernet network with Gigabit Ethernet. There are now 13,000 Gigabit Ethernet ports supported by 250 switches.

The president also points out that Davis and his IT team understand the college's business and educational operations--the real mission of the school. And they also understand that the technology they're working on is meant to enable those missions. In their role as enablers, IT professionals are brought in on a multitude of projects these days. They sit down with faculty, for example, and talk about the way they teach.

"You bring them in as part of the team and don't think of them as people sitting off in their IT corners like geeks," says Mills. "You've got to grow and think of them differently, and they've got to think of themselves differently. It's a real change in mind-set."Antonowicz says it was a huge change in thinking when Bowdoin decided to go with virtual servers, basing so much of its network on a technology that was completely new to everyone there.

"It was just so tight in here. What a space crunch," says Antonowicz. "We were very tight as far as rackspace and resources so that we were not in a position where we could roll out new servers without impacting our cooling system, power systems, or KVM. We were running out of floor space."

He says another reason the college decided to move toward virtualization is that the IT staff was encountering problems with software vendors that were reluctant to support their products when they were running on hardware with other apps at the same time. "Cohabitation was not an option from a server standpoint," says Antonowicz. "We looked to virtualize our hardware infrastructure to create several virtual servers that would be standalone installations on a physical node."

Antonowicz started looking at Virtual Iron Software Inc.'s open-source Xen, Microsoft's Virtual Server, SWsoft Inc.'s Virtuozzo, and VMware Inc.'s ESX Server. "We went with ESX from VMware because it allowed us to virtualize the hardware for the Intel platform," explains Antonowicz, who says other products didn't support as wide a range of operating systems or management tools. "On a single ESX Server, we could have five virtual servers--one would be Windows 2000, one would be Windows 2003, one Windows XP, one Linux, and one Sun Solaris--all operating on the same physical piece of hardware."

Finding the right virtual software still didn't make the move any less nerve-wracking.Antonowicz wondered if VMware would be stable enough to use in production. "It was kind of a new idea for us," he says. "VMware had been around, but we hadn't had a lot of experience with the resilience of the server product in everyday production with stresses, and we didn't know how well it would be able to handle backups, data recovery, disaster recovery, fault tolerance. It was a major concern."

It was enough of a concern that it used to keep him up at night. But it doesn't anymore.

Bowdoin had been testing the virtual servers for a few months when it suffered a hardware failure it simply couldn't figure out. Antonowicz believed the fastest way to bring the system back up was by running virtual servers. Virtual software management tools enable IT managers to quickly and easily move a virtual machine running on one physical server to a different physical server without interrupting the virtual machine. The switch can be done without lost data or downtime.

"I thought, I'm running this VMware stuff. Let me see if I can get it to work with that," he says. "I created a virtual machine and pulled it back as if it was a physical machine. I tweaked the drivers, and it worked. They got back online with it. At that point, I called up the CIO, Mitch Davis, and said, 'We need to buy this. We need to get this up and running.' It was a big step."

Over the next three months, Antonowicz and his IT team replaced four or five Intel-based HP servers that needed upgrading. Performance didn't suffer, he says. Actually, performance improved as they got processor and memory increases as part of the project.Today Bowdoin relies heavily on virtualization. A majority of its applications, ranging from every flavor of Windows to SQL, Apache Web server, admissions packages, and giant financial applications, run on a virtual basis. In the next year, the school plans to switch another 15 of its physical servers over to virtualized servers, increasing the total to more than 100 virtual servers.

And other changes are coming as soon as this summer. Right now, says Antonowicz, he generally runs seven virtual servers on a single physical server. That number will multiply in the next few months when the college starts buying HP blade servers with dual-core AMD processors. At that point, he'll be able to run as many as 20 to 25 virtual servers on a single blade.

And Antonowicz says if IT had had to come up with the cash for a data center overhaul, it wouldn't have been able to implement a new financial system, or the system would have been severely scaled down. The new educational training system wouldn't have been rolled out. Web-based services wouldn't have been expanded.

"Business would probably have continued to go on, but it would have been severely hampered because a lot of the new services we rolled out in the past few years would never have happened," he notes. "We've been able to make the services we provide better."

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