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Virtual trial leads to data center overhaul

IT folks at a Canadian media company thought they were testing virtualization software as a way to run a tighter ship. They got more than they bargained for.

Administrators at Canada's largest media company, Quebecor Inc., can zip entire servers across the country in an hour.

The level of flexibility now attainable at Quebecor, in Montreal, is only possible with technology that grew out of a laboratory testing environment using virtualization technology from EMC Corp.'s subsidiary VMware Inc.

But, even as virtual servers travel across the WAN in a matter of hours today, the roots of the project did not begin as a nationwide deployment. In fact, a network of virtual servers that now feed off of a centralized data center in Winnipeg, Manitoba, was originally modeled as a way to make only select systems efficient, said Timothy Happychuk, Quebecor's director of information technology.

Happychuk said the endeavor began as a way to test the efficacy of virtualization in terms of the additional security, fault tolerance, governance and systems management capabilities it might provide. Sarbanes-Oxley was also a catalyst, as well as the need to rip out and replace legacy machines and software.

It was two years ago when the decision was made to focus on virtualization, and the process continues today -- in a good way.

"What we did not expect was being able to virtualize the entire data center and move it from one place in the country to another," Happychuk said. "We kept trying to take the project to the next level and nothing ever got in our way."

The challenges of a nationwide deployment

Happychuk said his staff runs a gamut of systems -- from Apple Computer's Mac OSX to Sun Microsystems' Solaris and from Microsoft Windows to Unix and Linux. Getting each of these OSes to work in harmony on optimal hardware while at the same time conducting a full replacement of legacy hardware was a key reason why he first took an interest in virtualization.

When Happychuk approached hardware vendors with his goal of a centralized data center, he met the first of his challenges with virtualization. The project took on a plug-and-pray persona as the features of VMware's ESX Server mingled with those of the selected IBM hardware running beneath it.

"VMware had built a lot of features for fault tolerance into ESX Server in a SAN environment, and IBM itself had the same underlying technologies. The problem [was] that in the ESX kernel some features for fault tolerance would conflict with the hardware-level fault tolerance," Happychuk said.

Before VMware took the systems back to its labs for testing, the Quebecor data center at Winnipeg experienced a "round robin" syndrome where the ESX Server software would fail the hardware and vice versa. "Reality did not quite match the marketing," he said.

Changing legacy-minded minds

When he first tried to pitch the idea of a virtual data center, Happychuk also had to deal with longstanding, field-hardened executives who wanted nothing to do with servers they could not physically touch. "Another argument was that they did not want all the eggs in one basket in a central location. People wanted to know what would happen if the host system failed," he said.

Concerns like these are going to be fairly obvious ones for any company experimenting with new technologies, said Nashua, N.H.-based Illuminata Inc.'s senior analyst Gordon Haff.

"Obviously there is always going to be the 'we didn't do it that way ten years ago crowd' -- as is going to be true with any technology. But, in any case, it does require you to do some things differently," he said.

Haff agrees that virtualization means consolidating many servers into one, but that does not argue for not doing it. Instead, it argues for taking steps to mitigate for that additional type of risk.

Happychuk said the project has altered the makeup of personnel. Some of the IT staff members were let go as more servers were automated and consolidated. The data center is now at a central location, and that meant bringing in a higher level of experienced staff in smaller numbers.

The technology has far exceeded expectations, said Happychuk. "Using virtualization, every server has a multiple-level network with firewalls artfully placed along with client data -- and all within a virtual space we can fine-tune, zip up and move over the WAN," he said. "Being able to move huge pieces is definitely a big part of why we so eagerly adopted the technology."

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