Server Consolidation: Fewer Headaches for Net Admins?

When it comes to which platform (or platforms) to use for server consolidation, opinions vary widely, and some 'consolidated' shops still use more than one operating system.

 By Jacqueline Emigh
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During the current era of corporate budget-crunching, many businesses are moving to server consolidation as a way of cutting total cost of ownership (TCO). In some situations, server consolidation is going hand-in-hand with standardization on a small number of vendors for hardware and/or OS purchases. For network administrators, this lessens the need to keep up-to speed on multiple server platforms.

"You're seeing more companies that have chosen one vendor, and are staying with that vendor," affirms Cal Braunstein, CEO and executive director of research at the Robert Francis Group.

When it comes to which platform (or platforms) to use for consolidation, however, opinions vary widely. "Mainframes have the best capabilities for partitioning and workload management. High-end data centers, though, are starting to spread into Unix and Windows, too. Sun is the only (non-mainframe) platform to offer dynamic partitioning, as this point," says John Phelps, an analyst at Gartner Group.

"In the Unix space, IBM and Sun are driving larger servers. You're also starting to see some of that in the Microsoft space with Windows 2000 Data Center, but Data Center really isn't there yet," Braunstein maintains.

However, many customers are continuing to run some combination of Unix and Windows, even in the midst of consolidation. "We have a mix of HP-UX, Novell NetWare, Microsoft Windows NT, and Windows 2000. We are migrating towards just Unix and Windows 2000," notes Stova Wong, director of network and telecomunications at Paul Hastings, a large law firm. Meanwhile, on the W2K side, the lawyers are standardizing on Dell hardware servers.

The Southern Company, parent firm to several public utilities in the southern US, is also a mixed shop. Southern operates 250 Unix servers for database, Web, and application server functions, plus 600 Windows NT file/print/Web/application servers. Customer care applications run on an Amdahl mainframe.

Concurrent with recently instigated server consolidation, however, the Unix environment has moved from "80 percent Solaris to 95 percent Solaris," according to Steven Flynn, Southern's manager of Unix server support. Southern continues to rely on legacy Hewlett-Packard servers running HP-UX for applications like work order management.

Server consolidation has myriad dimensions, though. Gartner, for instance, has identified three types of server consolidation. These include "rationalized consolidation," in which the numbers of servers are reduced, and servers are replaced with more powerful models; "physical consolidation," or colocation of servers previously installed at different sites; and "local consolidation," in which the same management processes and procedures are adopted on all servers, regardless of location.

The Francis Group, on the other hand, points to four different sorts of server consolidation. In "location centralization," servers are relocated to different sites. In "physical consolidation," smaller servers are replaced with larger servers. In "data consolidation," data from multiple sources is combined in a common repository, whereas in "application consolidation," applications are moved to a common platform.

Depending on how it's implemented, server consolidation can save money on training, staffing, facilities, and operations, analysts agree. Organizations can also stand to benefit through improved systems management, higher reliability and availability, and improved processor utilization, for instance.

"Standardizing our hardware platforms allows us to keep 'hot spare' inventory such as hard disks, controllers, memory and NICs to a minimum, because they will fit into almost any server. We can also use the same server administration tools - such as Dell Open Manage and DRAC - across all servers. This saves us a lot of administrative and monitoring time. It speeds our recovery ability," attests Paul Hastings' Wong.

"Also, our network administrators spend less time in learning various platforms, (thereby) reducing (needs for) training and knowledge transfer," according to Wong.

To support Windows 2000, Hastings has installed more than 75 rack-mountable Dell PowerEdge servers in its 1,000-square-foot data center. The Dell servers are replacing smaller HP NetServers, for the most part.

Before deciding to buy all its Windows 2000 server hardware from Dell. the firm also took a look at new HP servers, as well as IBM X servers, says Wong. "It took a combination of several factors to come to this decision: commitment from Dell's executives; simple non-proprietary hardware; Dell's warranty; existing knowledge (of Dell servers) in the department; and cost."

At the Southern Company, cost was a big driver. Southern's large-scale IT operation employs 1000 people. According to Flynn, Southern able to negotiate very favorable leasing and maintenance terms for Sun servers. "We decreased hardware and maintenance costs by 31 percent. About two-thirds of these cost reductions were on the maintenance side," he elaborates.

Training costs were another criterion. "We had a customer service database and a marketing database running on HP that were open to consolidation. We were having to split our dollars, because everyone in the group had to be trained on both HP and Solaris," according to Flynn.

Since the migration, Southern has been running all 400 of its Oracle-based applications on Solaris. Flynn is also impressed with the quality of the Sun hardware. Thanks to partitioning, Southern is able to run 160 different Oracle database instances on two E10000 servers.

Aside from the two E10000 machines, the current Sun environment includes E3800s, for production, and E280Rs, for application development.

"This Oracle engine environment provides a simpler, yet more powerful environment," according to Flynn. Consolidation also initiated removal of a redundant application, returning an additional 700MB in resources. "New tools developed for the migration have ongoing benefits, and a new level of teamwork was established across functions," he contends.

Flynn has concluded that server consolidation is a worthwhile endeavor, though not necessarily as simple as it might sound. "Server consolidation can return more resources for less cost. Reducing the number of servers does provide efficiencies. Significant server consolidation, though, is not easy. Moving 160 different database instances took some doing. But, 'No pain, no gain,'" says Flynn.

At this point, Flynn is eyeing future migration to a 15000 Star Cat, Sun's top-of-the-line server. "We don't know whether that'll work out yet, though. We need to get all the numbers together on a piece of paper first," he adds.

Meanwhile, Flynn has used his past experience to develop some tips for other technical folks on how to build a "business case" that will win over executive management. "Be realistic about labor savings and efficiencies," he advises. "Look for other areas of savings, such as floor space, management tools, peripherals, etc. Look for opportunities to partner with other ongoing projects. Communicate relentlessly!"

Analysts concur that, to be successful, server consolidation almost invariably requires a well thought out consolidation plan, with active support from senior management. "You need to have people at a high level (in management), who understand how consolidation will help the whole company," notes Gartner's Phelps.

» See All Articles by Columnist Jacqueline Emigh

This article was originally published on Apr 29, 2002
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