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Linux, virtualization help bank tackle downtime issues

A healthy dose of Linux and VMware virtualization was all Stonebridge Bank needed to eliminate the downtime issues that plagued its older Windows-only architecture

Stonebridge Bank is a small, relatively young company with seven years under its belt and a staff of 60 employees. But that didn't stop the number of servers at this West Chester, Penn.-based bank from spiraling out of control.

The bank's senior vice president of director of information systems, George Rapp, said his IT staff of three had more than they could handle with 131 servers running a mix of Windows and Linux operating systems. Without a drastic change in the structure, Rapp was facing serious uptime issues and would have had to hire two additional IT staffers -- stretching his tight budget even further.

But before the worst could happen, Rapp began evaluating virtualization alternatives from Palo Alto, Calif.-based VMware Inc. and Linux distributions from Novell Inc. and Red Hat Inc.

Smashing the patch problem

Stonebridge Bank started life as a small community bank that ran Windows Server in its data center. Server uptime was more in the hands of a 15-day patch management schedule than in the hands of the IT staff, which was unacceptable, Rapp said, because the nature of the banking business requires access to customer and business-related information at all times.

Rapp said he actually took the first step in addressing uptime issues with Linux, which he introduced to the bank a few years after it was founded in the late 1990's. Red Hat was integrated first for Web functionality, alongside the open source database MySQL. Rapp eventually replaced Red Hat with Novell SuSE Linux Enterprise Server 8 (SLES8), and he has plans to move to SLES9 in the near future.

For us the biggest problem was still downtime. The Windows machines still required frequent patching and restarts, while the Linux machines we didn't have to worry about much at all.
George Rapp
Senior VP of Information SystemsSouthbridge Bank

But even with the cost savings the bank has with Linux running on servers throughout the bank's DC, the patch management issues and server updates surrounding Windows running on a number of mission critical servers continued to eat into the bottom line.

"For us the biggest problem was still downtime," Rapp said. "The Windows machines still required frequent patching and restarts, while the Linux machines we didn't have to worry about much at all."

Rapp said the uptime for his Linux machines could be measured in months, while the Windows machines still required restarts for new patches every 15 days. However, getting rid of Windows entirely was not an option because many financial applications ran only on Microsoft products. An alternative needed to be found.

Jumping ship to a virtual ocean

To address the downtime issues that still affected business at Stonebridge, Rapp decided to invest in VMware GSX Server.

At the time of the GSX implementation, Southbridge Bank was running 131 servers. Rapp said the environment was incredibly busy and unproductive, given that all of the servers were maintained by a staff of three and required downtime every 15 days for patching.

"[GSX] was a nice way to try out virtualization, and we first used it for testing functions and for deploying a new Web site," he said. "We started out by running it on top of our Linux servers and found it to be a good cost-saving move."

In 2005, Rapp decided to move from GSX to VMware ESX Server, which he believed had become stable enough to warrant the challenging migration from a physical environment to a virtual one.

"We immediately saw better uptime. We saw better provisioning of hardware. This system makes it easier to keep servers running, as we can move one virtual machine to the other if we need patching done," Rapp said.

For more on virtualization and open source:

Top tips for understanding virtualization

Server room menu: Virtualization in four styles

Red Hat CTO: RHEL5 will drive virtualization costs down

More challenges for a cool, virtual data center

The process of moving from a physical environment to a predominantly virtual one did come with its fair share of challenges, Rapp said. First, he and his staff had to be sure they picked the right platform on their first attempt because of their small business budget.

"We also subscribed to the VMware user groups to figure out what other people were doing as well. Then we had to pick the servers we were going to use. With our tight budget, we had to standardize on HP SAN and HP DL585 machines with quad Opteron processors," said Rapp.

Banking some benefits

But even in light of these challenges, the benefits still outweighed them, and Rapp said he expects to eliminate a further 10 physical servers in 2006.

Where there were once 131 servers sucking up air conditioning and staff time, there is now a plan in place to have 21 servers by the end of the year. As far as power was concerned, the new virtual DC was now running at 40% of capacity.

And those two staffers Rapp said he would have had to hire? He didn't, and instead used the resources to train one of his existing staff to become a full-time Linux administrator for the bank's new virtual data center.

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