Canada’s top condo builder wins big time with virtualization

Tridel Corp. knows a thing or two about construction.

Over the past 70 years, this Toronto-based company has built more than 65,000 homes, and today ranks among Canada’s top builders of condominium communities.

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The real estate boom may has boosted Tridel’s bottom line, but the intense market activity also proved to be too hot for the company’s computer servers.

By 2007, cooling problems and overloads started to cause disruptive shutdowns of the company’s 60 servers that handled crucial business functions.

Tridel decided to tackle the problem head on with a little help virtualization technology.

The decision, company executives say, has proved to be tremendously rewarding…in many ways.

Virtualization involves making a single physical resource – such as a server, operating system, application, or storage device – appear to function as multiple virtual resources. On the other hand it can also include making multiple physical resources (such as storage devices or servers) appear as a single virtual resource.

The technology allows application workloads to be shifted between machines to optimize hardware use.

In Tridel’s case, such optimized usage has led to very tangible benefits.

For instance, the move to virtual machines has enabled the company to cut its physical server count in half, reduce cooling costs, and avoid a $100,000 hardware upgrade.

Tridel adopted the Infrastructure 3 product suite from Palo Alto, Calif.-based VMware Inc., a key player in virtualization market.

Consolidation is one of the main touted benefits of Infrastructure 3 that’s designed to run production server environments.

For instance, the suite allows you to run several virtual machines on just a few physical servers. It also has functionality built in for high availability and business continuity.

Tridel says it experienced some of these benefits right away.

For instance, shortly after the builder deployed the new system, demands on its uninterruptible power supply (UPS) system dropped and the shutdowns stopped.

The company has been using VMware Workstation since 1998 to test applications and operating systems.

So the decision to swap physical machines for virtual ones was swiftly arrived at, according to the Tridel’s IT chief.

“An overtaxed UPS was causing our servers to shut down daily during peak production time,” said Brad Barlow, IT manager for Tridel.

“Obviously this didn’t go down well with our executives.”

More than 500 office and remote employees depend on the physical servers that run basic and critical production applications.  But daily system shutdowns running from 15 to 20 minutes during work hours were holding back productivity.

“When one UPS becomes overtaxed it fails over to the next, but the load is just too much that eventually all units fail. We had to come up with something fast,” said Barlow.

The company had two alternatives: upgrade the UPS system at a cost of more than $100,000 – or virtualize.

Upgrading the UPS hardware would solve the immediate problem, but would have locked Tridel in an ongoing physical server procurement cycle to support increasing production demands. “It would have meant deploying more hardware over the years.”

Instead, the company saw the situation as an opportunity to reduce its server footprint and cut power consumption.

“Tridel realized they were spending more money to cool their physical servers than to run those machines,” said John Gilmartin, senior manager, product marketing at VMware. Replacing physical servers with virtual machines will reduce the cooling cost and increase computing capacity, he said.

The deployment included the installation of VMware’s ESX 3 hypervisor which abstracts server processor, memory, storage and networking resources into multiple virtual machines.

Also deployed were:

  • VMware’s VirtualCentre that enables rapid provisioning of virtual servers and monitoring of physical servers;
  • The VMotion tool for hardware maintenance and live system migration;
  • VMWare High Availability for failover protection;
  • Distributed Resources Scheduler to balance load capacity and ensure each virtual machine has access to appropriate resources at any point in time; and,
  • VM Converter to transform Microsoft Windows based physical machines and third party formats to VMware virtual machines.

When Barlow and his team swapped physical machines for virtual ones, the demands on the UPS dropped.

The UPS, he says, hasn’t shut itself off since, and as the company because didn’t have to upgrade it, that was a saving of approximately $100,000 right there.

In addition, Barlow says Tridel’s leaner, greener data center also saves money on energy and cooling costs, partly because it can now use a less powerful HVAC (heating, ventilating and air-conditioning) system.

The set-up supported a three-to-one server consolidation ratio, which shaved energy and hardware costs but cutting physical server number to less than 30, said Barlow.

With a total of 51 virtual machines running production applications on four hosts, the company’s data center is now approximately 70 per cent virtualized.

The deployment cost approximately $20,000.

Gilmartin estimates that Tridel saved as much as 80 per cent on data centre space, by reducing eight server racks to two and reduced server provisioning time reduced by about 70 percent.

Reduction in the number of physical machines are one of the key benefits of virtualization, said John Sloan, senior research analyst at Info-Tech Research Group based in London, Ont.

“Server consolidation is a very tangible idea that many business executives can understand.”

Companies can save as much as 45 to 75 per cent of their budget allocated for physical servers by deploying virtual machines, according to a recent Info-Tech study.

Consolidation also cuts hardware maintenance expenditure by around 25–50 per cent.

One of the major benefits of the new system is the speed at which Tridel’s IT team can now roll out servers, said Barlow. “It normally took us a week to have physical servers installed and configured. Now we have templates that enable us to set up virtual servers in five minutes.”

Now, when the team needs to repair or upgrade a server, there is also no need to shut down the machine. “VMotion allows us to smoothly move functions of one physical server to another without having to shut down any unit.”

Tridel intends to achieve 90 per cent virtualization in the near future, Barlow said.

Edited by Joaquim P. Menezes

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