Canadian Securities Institute tries its hand at virtualization

TORONTO – The Canadian Securities Institute has joined the ranks of corporate enterprises that are turning to server virtualization to achieve scaleability in their IT infrastructure.

The financial education organization is in the process of upgrading its Web Course Tools (WebCT) e-learning software from version 4.0 to 6.0 and will be deploying it on Dell PowerEdge servers. The flat file system will be linked to an Oracle database and connected to an Apache Web server. The Canadian Securities Institute (CSI) will use VMWare’s ESX server to run multiple instances of the software on a single piece of hardware, which the firm’s director of IT, Randy Pond, said would ensure it can meet the needs of the 40,000 students who take its distance education courses.

Pond, who spoke at a Dell Canada briefing on server virtualization Thursday, said his use of the ESX Server software has allowed him to respond to new server requests within the same day, deploying a new OS in about five minutes.

“It’s certainly won me a lot of converts,” he said, noting that there was considerable resistance to virtualization in some parts of CSI. “There was the thinking that you always deploy a new application to get a new server . . . people just get used to doing things in a certain way.”

VMWare and Dell gave CSI the servers and software to run on a trial basis for 60 days. Pond said the organization tested it in its finance and accounting department, which was running Microsoft’s SQL Server, last November before moving it into other areas. The other major internal concern was whether vendors would continue to support products running in a virtualized environment, but Pond noted that vendors themselves are embracing the same technology.

Many organizations are looking at virtualization as a means of increasing server utilization, which analysts such as IDC say fall within the five to 15 per cent range. Pond said CSI’s situation was no different, which was what prompted a project a few years ago to consolidate its server infrastructure as some Windows NT machines were reaching their end-of-life. In the end, 32 servers were winnowed down to four, which in turn are able to run virtualization software that allows for a highly partitioned environment. The newer servers, however, include more advanced technology such as dual-core processors, which allow much greater performance. 

“The utilization (on the new servers) is still about five per cent,” he said.

Dell Canada systems consultant John Schouten said that while it would be possible, in theory, to run several applications on the same box without virtualization, products such as SAP, Lotus Notes and Microsoft Exchange share the same binaries, or DLLs. 

“Those can lead to dependencies over time,” he explained, which can expose enterprises to greater risk as well as performance issues. “You wouldn’t want to have your authentication systems coexist with your Web (server) and security (systems). You want to isolate those.”

Although Dell makes a lot of money selling servers, virtualization hasn’t affected its shipments so far, said Debora Jensen, vice-president of the company’s Advanced Systems Group. Blade servers, for example, are starting to take off, she said, while the movement of legacy applications off the mainframe is keeping the traditional volume server market healthy. 

“As some volumes decrease, others increase, and the aggregate continues to grow,” she said.

Pond said the CSI infrastructure has been provisioned so that any one of the servers can handle the full load of the WebCT application if one or more of the others goes down.

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