Virtual servers bring real benefits to Canadian telecom firm

Replacing physical servers with virtual machines enabled a Canadian telecom equipment manufacturer to squeeze greater productivity out of its network and speed up delivery of IT services to internal clients.

By embracing virtualization, Mitel Networks Corp., of Kanata, Ont. was able to prevent server capacity from going to waste during non-peak demand periods.

The move enabled the company to cut down its server count from 12 to two, reduce physical processors from 24 to 12, speed application delivery from six weeks to half a day and slash annual operating expenses by $300,000.

An awareness that it was wasting computing power led Mitel to launch this “virtualization”, according to David Grant, data centre manager at Mitel.

It was standard practice to buy extra capacity for expected future growth when purchasing servers, he said.

Unfortunately, the extra capacity usually remained idle until nearly the end of the server’s life cycle, when demand ramped up again.

Then the company would be pressed to purchase additional servers and the cycle would repeat again.

In addition, Grant said, Mitel’s IT department faced mounting pressure to respond faster to business requests. “It took about six weeks to deliver more processing capacity for critical applications. We knew we had to do a better job of provisioning.”

Mitel initially produced traditional private branch exchange (PBX) telecom equipment, but later made a strategic push into the global Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) business.

The company more than doubled it size and accompanying business demands with the purchase last year of Inter-Tel Inc. a Delaware-based VoIP service provider.

Mitel turned to Hewlett-Packard to develop a virtual server environment for the telecom provider’s core systems, which included a SAP R/3, an Oracle database and Mitel’s own internal applications.

Deployment was in two major phases according Mark MacGowan, head of IT services at Mitel.

He said HP initially focused on consolidating Mitel’s 12 servers onto two PA-RISC HP 9000 rp8420 Servers with two clustered network-attached file storage devices based on HP StorageWorks Enterprise Virtual Arrays.

Dual HP StorageWorks MSL tape libraries with fibre channel switches were installed for automatic real-time data backup via HP storage data protector software.

Consolidation was estimated to take six months, but HP got the system together in half the time, the Mitel executive said.

The next phase involved data centre transformation. The existing system was upgraded to Itanium-based HP Integrity rx8640 servers with Dual-Core Intel Itanium processors.

MacGowan said the transition went smoothly and did not have any impact business operations. The only snag, he said, was when some legacy applications failed to run on the new hardware. “HP stepped in and moved the legacy applications onto some of our older servers”.

The deployment paid off in several ways.

Fewer servers and processors to manage cut yearly operational expenses by $300,000. The new system required 30 per cent less staff to handle administration tasks.

Virtualization also enabled Mitel to cut software licensing cost, many of which are processor-based. For instance, Grant said, Mitel dropped one of its Oracle licenses and halved its HP-UX licenses.

Power and cooling requirements were also reduced with the use of virtualized machines.

These immediate advantages are key selling points of virtualization, according to Tarun Bhasin, a senior research analyst for analyst firm IDC Canada.

He said recent IDC surveys indicate that one out of every two Canadian companies is using virtualization technology.

“The return of investment (ROI) on server consolidation is very attractive, but there are other benefits that virtualization provides,” he said.

Long-term benefits such as improved hardware and software asset management – is another strong argument for virtualization, Bhasin said.

Traditionally, firms purchased one server for every new service or application they deployed.

This provided IT teams with the assurance that there would be enough computing capacity to meet future needs, he said. “The one server-one application approach guaranteed adequate capacity but produced server sprawl and complexity.”

By planning over-capacity into the system, much of the power remained idle and wasted. Meanwhile the plethora of servers meant more machines for IT personnel to monitor and maintain.

The practice also resulted in delays in application deployment and service provisioning. “In order to release a new service, a new server had to be bought and set up. That normally took weeks,” said Bhasin.

Virtualization technology enables IT teams to create virtual servers in a short period to house new applications.

Virtualization is able to accommodate Mitel’s rapid growth, according to MacGowan, the company’s head of IT services. He said his team was able to add new IT services to Mitel’s servers without increasing the number of physical machines.

“Instead of a six-week lead time, we can now carve out a new virtual system from an existing box within half a day.”

This improved the relationship between IT and the company’s business users, according to Grant (Mitel’s data centre manager).

He said R&D teams are now also more likely to consult the data centre team rather than building out a system by themselves.

“Virtualization helped us manage our IT resources better. We are now able to answer ‘yes’ to requests more often,” Grant said.

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