Virtualization to the rescue
Streamlined infrastructure protects vital government data and operations
- By Doug Beizer
- Mar 20, 2008
When Hurricane Charley was bearing down
on Florida's west coast in 2004, Charlotte
County officials moved their servers to a hardened,
protected building ? the county jail.
The move, part of a plan the county implemented
systems, ensured that first responders would
continue to have access to important data,
including the county's geographic information
system. They use the GIS to locate important
resources and structures such as water mains.
Mark Ramsey, the county's manager of
information technology operations, said he
remembers going to the county's emergency
operations center just after the storm hit.
"I remember walking into the sheriff 's
office's IT room on the way through to our
center and looking up and seeing stars,"
Ramsey said. "They had lost their roof."
But even with the wind and rain buffeting
the facility, "the gear was still running," he
said. "They had protected it with tarps, and
they had generators."
The county's equipment in the jail sustained
less damage from water and debris
than the sheriff 's department's IT gear did.
The jail did, however, lose power during
the storm. The county's IT hardware continued
to run on battery power from uninterruptible
power supply devices, but the lack of
air conditioning caused problems with heat
"My gear was up without being cooled
properly, and it got slammed down three
or four times," Ramsey said.
At times, the temperature in the room
reached 120 degrees. With that kind of stress,
Ramsey no longer trusted the reliability of the
hardware. After the storm passed, the county
launched an infrastructure redesign that led
to a new disaster plan with an emphasis on
The traditional way to build an IT infrastructure
is to have a separate server for each
application. With virtualization, multiple
applications are loaded onto a single piece of
hardware that is divided into virtual servers.
Before its redesign, Charlotte County had
65 stand-alone servers. That kind of server
sprawl is typical of government organizations,
said Jeff White, a storage specialist at CDW
Government, which worked with the county
on its redesign.
"For Charlotte [County], by using VMware
[Inc. products], they got their 65 servers down
to six physical servers," White said. "That's a
big-time gain in reducing power and cooling
needs, not to mention?management and
With the newest software and hardware,
virtualization can work for big and small
organizations, White said.
Traditional servers are often grossly underused,
running only at 2 percent to 10 percent
of their potential utilization. Virtualization
allows agencies to reclaim some of those
Charlotte County had several one-use
servers before the redesign and a number of
different storage technologies from serverattached
storage to Fibre Channel storage.
For the county's new system, Ramsey wanted
something that reduced the amount of
hardware and standardized it.
"I also wanted something that allowed me a
great deal of flexibility in redesigning the
actual server environment itself," he said.
"Virtualization lent itself wonderfully to that."
Building new virtual servers took only
about 15 minutes with the new system,
Ramsey said.SOLID INFRASTRUCTURE
The county has two sites for its virtual servers,
and departments are split between the sites.
The departments' shared data, applications,
Microsoft Exchange servers and more are at
the sites. The county's enterprise-level databases
reside at a hardened facility.
"I can share my data across the chassis,
where before I had a single Fibre Channel
frame," Ramsey said.
With the old system, the single Fibre Channel
frame had dedicated strands of fiber running
between buildings to mirror partitions.
"I don't need that anymore, I can rely more
heavily on what we consider a pretty solid network
infrastructure ? our 10 [gigabyte] backbone
between the two facilities," he said.
The county uses that network to run replications
or duplications of data.
The county uses storage technology from
LeftHand Networks Inc., of Boulder, Colo.
The company's SAN/iQ software provides
storage clustering capabilities and makes it
possible to consolidate physical storage nodes
into virtual pools of storage.
The clustered storage-area network is
managed from a single management interface
regardless of the mix of platforms, age,
software revision or location on the network.
The LeftHand software also includes
thin provisioning, which is a form of storage
Unlike traditional provisioning methods,
thin provisioning creates large virtual-storage
volumes that only consume the capacity used
by data, leaving no stranded storage capacity.
Capacity not required for storage remains
available for other applications.
With the new system, Ramsey can isolate
where virtual servers are located.
"If I do have a fiber cut, I can survive that
with it being 90 percent transparent to the
user," he said. "If I have a site failure, it takes
me about 45 minutes to recover."Doug Beizer (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a staff
writer at Washington Technology.