Intrawest gets vacation from server sprawl through virtualization

Travel company Intrawest, which develops and operates resorts on ski slopes, golf courses and beaches, had a problem with server sprawl.

The high cost of managing 350 under-utilized physical devices led the IT department to start using virtual machines (VMs) as a default for server services to reduce TCO and lead times associated with procuring and configuring physical servers.

Vancouver-based Intrawest specializes in destination resorts and adventure travel, including eight million annual visits by skiers on 10 mountains and thousands of golfers on 36 golf courses; it’s now offering adventure travel around the world through Abercrombie & Kent.

The company’s Enterprise Technology Centre, with approximately 140 employees, provides operational and project support for core enterprise IT applications and services. But the mindset that a dedicated server is required for each new or existing application is still entrenched in the minds of most business unit leaders and application owners, and IT teams are typically reactive to issues or problems, according to an Intrawest executive.

“The amount of real estate required to provide an adequate testing lab for our production applications and systems just wasn’t feasible,” said Kevin Park, manager of infrastructure services, enterprise information technology, with Intrawest Corp. “So for us to be able to duplicate our environment, even if we scaled down our physical environment, was just out of reach.”

It has now completed “phase one” of its VM strategy by moving its lab environment to IBM blade centres using VMware. Its future road map is to move to a similar architecture in a project or “sandbox” environment in early 2007. It will also be looking at virtualization opportunities in its production environment, scheduled for mid-2007, using VMware GSX and ESX. “My team’s focus is enterprise applications, so ERP, CRM, many of the core systems and applications,” said Park. “So where it makes sense to consolidate and centralize, that’s what we’re looking at.”

In a lab environment, VMs made sense and there wasn’t a lot of push-back, he said. Bringing VMs into a production environment, however, has been a big challenge. Conceptually, the IT department has approval to proceed, but the details and what it’s going to mean to the business haven’t been worked out yet.

“We’re no different in that business units fund a particular project and they don’t want anybody else using it, which contributes to the server sprawl,” said Park. “It’s that whole mindset that’s difficult to change. Nobody questions storage or SANs because no single business unit could ever afford to purchase a SAN just for a project.”

Finding resources is also a challenge, he added, especially in today’s tight labour market. “So the projects tend to stretch out a little further than we’d like to,” he said. But VMs will reduce lead times, he added, which will have a trickle-down effect to the customer, in addition to cutting costs.

Virtualization has matured into the mainstream, said Parag Patel, senior director of storage ecosystem alliances with VMware, and we’re moving from consolidation to virtual infrastructure services.

The first generation lets you create virtual machines (by taking a server and partitioning it), while the second generation is about virtual infrastructure and consolidating the entire server farm with central management capabilities. The third generation is infrastructure-wide virtualization. “You’re affecting storage, network devices, the whole data centre has a virtual layer above it,” said Patel, adding that very few companies are in this third phase yet.

“It’s not just about consolidation anymore, it’s about enterprise-wide virtual infrastructure services,” he said, “transforming hardware and capacity management from physical to virtualized to pooled.”

Virtual applications are changing the role of the operating system, he said, and eventually he expects to see more specialized, leaner and meaner operating systems on pre-packaged virtual appliances.

Comment: info@itbusiness.ca

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