Montreal public transit stops server sprawl

A public transportation agency is using virtualization to consolidate servers in its data centre, but it’s also discovered other benefits such as business continuity.

Société de transport de Montréal operates the city’s buses and Métro, and provides 1.3 million trips on its system every day. It’s also a VMware Infrastructure 3 beta customer.

For STM, server sprawl was rampant in its data centre. Disaster recovery was inefficient, since it had to double up on hardware to protect its most critical servers. Business continuity wasn’t transparent, so if an application went down, users were interrupted until everything came back online.

STM decided to test out the concept of virtualization using a VMware ESX Server. “We started looking at VMware last year as a consolidation tool, but the more we researched it, the more we played with it, we started creating strategies around it, basically all focused toward business continuity,” said Mike Stefanakis, senior systems engineer with Société de transport de Montréal.

So far, virtualization has allowed STM to cut costs by 30 per cent through consolidating its servers at a ratio of 15:1, as well as move virtual machines into production sooner than anticipated and reduce unplanned downtime. “It depends what level you feel comfortable taking it to,” said Stefanakis. “We’re going to try to push the envelope with it.”

Enterprise IT organizations are focused on data centre automation across process, technology and management workflows, according to IDC in a recent report entitled, “IT Organizations Speak: Datacenter Automation is an Increasing Focus and Reality in 2006.”

While the largest driver for automating IT processes is reducing costs and human error, says IDC, most IT organizations struggle to make the business case for automation technology.

“People inherently feel uncomfortable about bunkering with other people on shared infrastructure, which is what virtualization is,” said Brian Byun, vice-president of products and alliances with VMware Inc., a subsidiary of EMC Corp. in Palo Alto, Calif. “So that is a cultural thing. People automatically think they get less.” Organizations should focus on the benefits to customers, he said, and making IT a service utility.

“The major challenge in the beginning was the psychological barrier,” said Stefanakis. “Nobody wants their machine taken off a physical platform and put onto a virtual one.”

At first, he looked at virtualization as a “nice” platform for his test servers, but he had no intention of virtualizing anything that was in production. “But as you look at the benefits and as you see stability, the psychological barrier starts to break down a little bit,” he said, “so acceptance starts slowly creeping in.”

STM’s first VMware servers went into its environment last fall in more of an experimental capacity. “But because there was a need, we started using them a couple months after they went into the environment,” he said. “Our major rollout is going to happen from this summer to the end of the year.”

Development time drops
So far, STM has saved $200,000 – about a 30 per cent cost savings – through server consolidation (a physical server costs about $13,800, while a virtual server costs $8,000). This doesn’t take into account soft cost savings over the long term, such as space, electricity, heat and maintenance. Development time for new servers has also been reduced from six weeks to less than a day.

A layer of software creates a logical view of the hardware, and on top of that the IT department can provision an application, said Byun. Most organizations do that as a built-to-order process, but with virtualization they can provision a logical server in a few hours – which means the IT department can deploy applications a lot faster.

STM is also using virtualization for disaster recovery. “Even when we were clustering our servers and making our systems redundant, all we were really protecting them against were hardware failures,” said Stefanakis. “You can’t really do much about data corruption.”

Now if a server crashes, STM exports it and starts it up on another machine. This process takes from five to 15 minutes, compared to retrieving data from a cold site, which could take days or sometimes weeks.

VMware launched VMware Infrastructure 3 in June, the third generation of its infrastructure virtualization software suite. The latest version supports workloads that require up to four processors and has options for a distributed file system and consolidated backup.

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