From Apple to VMware: The Lab Schools' Virtualized Environment

The University of Chicago Lab Schools had to abandon its Apple server infrastructure; here's how it launched a virtualized environment and cut its server count in half.

Frank Berry

July 19, 2012

4 Min Read
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The University of Chicago Laboratory Schools were founded in 1896. More than 1,700 students are in attendance, from preschool to 12th grade, and about half are the children of faculty members at the university. It's considered one of the top preparatory schools in the United States--according to The Wall Street Journal, it's among the top five feeder institutions in the nation for elite colleges.

The University of Chicago IT department provides a number of essential services to students and faculty at the Lab Schools with PowerSchool, a Web-based student information system that supports 10 million students in all 50 states and more than 65 countries. PowerSchool offers a collaborative environment for parents, teachers and students to work with attendance and disciplinary management, as well as faculty and centralized enrollment, accessible via iPhones or Android phones.

The Lab Schools infrastructure was primarily Apple, including 12 Xserve systems, the Xsan SAN file system for Mac OS X, and a QLogic 5600 Fibre Channel switch attached to 40 terabytes of Promise FC RAID systems. However, when Apple announced that it would no longer offer Xserve servers after January 2011, the University of Chicago was faced with migrating its Laboratory School servers and applications from Mac OS X to Windows and Red Hat Linux running on VMware ESXi.

Like most pre-virtualization environments, the IT department ran separate servers for the Web, email, database, backup, student registration and other applications. Adding applications required the deployment of even more servers, plus cables and switch ports for access to shared storage. As the IT department moved toward a virtualized environment, it decided to investigate server consolidation in addition to a migration from Mac OS X.

The goal of the Lab Schools was to move all 300 faculty members and 1,700 students from their familiar Apple-centric environment to VMware seamlessly and without interruption. The IT department started the migration by bringing up a few test systems in VMware and experimented with moving some of the key applications such as mail and Web services.

The implementation plan called for running Web servers, email, database, backup, student registration and other systems as guest applications in the VMware configuration, with shared storage and a comprehensive backup scheme. Based on in-house testing, IT expected to consolidate 12 servers into six, running a total of 20 VMs. Reducing the number of physical severs by 50% not only simplifies management, but also lowers power and cooling costs while providing a more scalable long-term solution to the school's computing needs.

In any server virtualized environment, the need to provide I/O to the guest applications is fundamental to the success of the implementation. IT estimated that multiple guest applications running on a physical server would put a tremendous load on I/O and would be a performance bottleneck if 10GbE is not used. Installation of QLogic 8142 10GbE server adapters in each physical server provided the necessary support for the school's I/O-hungry applications, such as email, Web and file services.

Additionally, with the 10GbE backbone in place, the backup application could now take advantage of greater bandwidth. The current disk-to-disk-to-tape backup scheme was limited by the older 1GbE network. With 10GbE in place, daily Atempo incremental backups as well as monthly full backups are now be achieved faster, resulting in less down time for faculty and students. The time required for the full backups that run over a weekend every month has been reduced by more than 50% with the new 10GbE infrastructure.

Today, the Lab School's IT department is forging ahead with plans to migrate and consolidate all applications and servers. Testing continues with a Sept. 1 target date for complete migration of all faculty and students to the new servers.

The following are a few lessons the IT staff want to share with peers:

  • Pick multi-platform products (hardware and software) that can be migrated to new systems while retaining your investment.

  • Use 10GbE for improved I/O in server virtualized environments.

  • Use 10GbE for improved backup performance in a VMware environment.

  • Test application portability and usability in the new environment.

Frank Berry is CEO of IT Brand Pulse, a company that surveys customers about their perceptions on vendors and their products. Berry is a 30-year veteran of the IT industry, including senior executive positions at QLogic and Quantum.

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