Virtual server management tamed by IMF

The International Monetary Fund virtualized its servers to boost utilization, but found that shared infrastructure made management more complex than in a physical data center.

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The International Monetary Fund (IMF) is a United Nations-chartered organization dedicated to maintaining stable currencies across the world. The organization is made up of 184 member countries, and its primary business is economic research, developing reports and recommendations based on economic modeling tools.

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Ironically, this organization, which consults countries on how to run their economies effectively, was running into an efficiency problem of its own. According to Tom Ferris, senior IT officer at IMF, CPU utilization was as low as 5% in its server environment -- a mix of about 700 mostly Windows 2000 and 2003 boxes, as well as a few Red Hat Linux, AIX and Solaris servers.

To combat the problem, IMF moved away from a dedicated server-to-application model and abstracted the server layer using VMWare Inc.'s ESX virtualization software, which boosted utilization to somewhere between 40% and 60%, Ferris said.

Under the new model, Ferris' users tell him how much computing power, storage and availability they need for their applications. Then his team designs the back end. From there, Ferris blows out a standardized server image template based on the needs of the application.

"Now, instead of an application owner saying I need three HP DL380 with four gig of memory," Ferris said, "people tell us they need two development servers, two staging servers and seven production servers for a project or application."

Change is hard

But while a project like this makes sense on paper, it can be a hard to sell to the other interested parties. "You have application developers and DBAs saying, 'I don't need the server group. I can manage this on my own.' What we're trying to do is say hey, let us focus on the hardware and operating system."

Running multiple applications or databases on a single box can also be a challenge. "What would make things challenging is we'd give admin rights to the app developer and owner," Ferris said. "You can't let a bunch of people loose to add patches and make changes."

Experts say 80% of all server downtime is due to change. With multiple users on shared hardware, the stakes became higher. IMF needed a way to automate some server administration tasks and track any changes that were taking place.

"We were looking for a tool that would help us manage that environment with a headcount that's been declining," Ferris said. "Our server count was going up, the number of people going down. It's a challenge to manage more with less and maintain the same level of service."

The hunt was on for a configuration management suite.

Being a predominantly Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP) shop, IMF already used HP Insight Manager for hardware management tasks, like making sure a fan or disk drive wasn't going bad, or monitoring the bios and firmware. A natural choice, therefore, would have been OpenView, especially given HP's recent investments in configuration management functions, but Ferris wasn't impressed.

"HP has gone on a buying spree to provide that whole complement of capabilities, but their sell isn't very compelling because it's a bunch of different stuff. It ends up being five different products," Ferris said.

IMF tried a product called Marimba (purchased by BMC in 2004) for administrative automation tasks, such as patch management, but didn't have very good success either, according to Ferris. Plus, he had much bigger issues than software distribution and remediation to deal with.

BladeLogic fits the bill

Then one year ago, Ferris started working with BladeLogic Inc. and found the capabilities he was looking for. "We have a mechanism for tracking changes. We have the capability to remediate. If a configuration change has been made, we can fix it with BladeLogic," Ferris said.

The Lexington, Mass.-based BladeLogic has the ability to assign granular access privileges to different administrators. It also has a discovery tool to make sure each server in the data center is running a BladeLogic agent. But IMF has even bigger plans for the tool.

For example, Ferris has started using reports from BladeLogic to provide information to compliance auditors. "They're always asking if you can verify that you have monitoring software. Can you validate that you have Norton Antivirus on all your servers? Can you show us who has access to these servers? BladeLogic runs that report, and it makes life a lot easier."

Ferris said he is also working with BladeLogic's tracking capabilities on a chargeback for schema for the various business units. "Before, it was very clear who the users were and what it cost. A lot of organizations have lost track of where the costs are hidden now."

Let us know what you think about the story; e-mail: Matt Stansberry, Site Editor

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