Canfor cuts down its server fleet

Canada’s largest softwood lumber company has taken an axe to its server fleet, finishing up a hardware consolidation project that the company said will save $100,000 a year.

Vancouver-based Canfor Corp. has already used VMware’s virtualization software to cut down 83 machines to about five Dell PowerEdge 6850s and a few older machines. Dell has also been providing professional services to the forest products company.

Like many organizations, Canfor had been operating in an environment where a single server was being used to run a single application, said Geoff Routledge, the company’s manager of core infrastructure. Following its merger with Slocan in 2004, however, Canfor saw a considerable change in the way its IT was managed.

“We had a workload imbalance,” he said. “Our serer management department was diminished. We needed to find the appropriate technology to recover from that.”

Virtualization is actually the second phase of Canfor’s consolidation project, added John Tolkamp, its general manager of information technology. The first phase involved setting up a storage area network (SAN) within its Unix environment. Virtualization, however, has brought major benefits in terms of management, Tolkamp said. 

“Before, if there were any hardware issues in the previous (server) model, you would have to find an outage window,” he said. “Now we can isolate that from the application.”

Virtualization doesn’t always come easy, however. Dell Canada Services’s Frank Potocnik said the company typically begins working with a client by conducting a virtualization readiness assessment, which results in a report that details potential return on investment and total cost of ownership in a virtualized environment.

Bill Durham, who supports Dell Canada’s professional services team, said the kick-off for virtualizing IT infrastructure involves looking for systems with high memory utilization, disk I/O or memory. Those machines are left alone, initially.

“That’s where you know it’s going to take a lot more fine tuning. It’s not the low-hanging fruit,” he said. 

Storage is another consideration, especially in environments with a lot of locally attached disks, he said. You don’t want a situation where the virtual machines end up eating tons of storage space. “To realize the benefits and features (of virtualization), you need consolidated storage,” he said.

There’s also the potential challenge of managing applications that weren’t originally designed to support virtual instances.

“Some of the math changes when you have a Citrix farm and you spread it over six virtual machines,” Routledge said. “It can take a little bit of extra thinking to plan it well. Some of (the applications) don’t translate directly across.”

Canfor is now bringing over servers as they reach end of life. In the old days, that rollover process was pretty involved, Rutledge said, but Canfor has already moved 25 or 30 servers. Besides the efficiencies in hardware, the company has also become more efficient with internal staff, Tolkamp said.

“We’ve been able to maintain the infrastructure and application suite with current staff,” he said. “We’ve also seen better uptime. In the past, we would have had a hardware failure and would have had to take the application down. Not anymore.”

Canfor also expects to gain additional headroom through the project, Routledge said. Virtualization is expected to save nearly 150 U of rack server space.

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