Blades of gold -- a virtual migration

Kalgoorlie Consolidated Gold Mines is in the process of moving its IT infrastructure from a fleet of traditional servers to virtual servers running on blade hardware.

Kalgoorlie Consolidated Gold Mines (KCGM) operates the largest open pit mine in Australia: the "Super Pit" -- more formally the Fimiston Open Pit, which produces up to 850,000 ounces of gold every year. Kalgoorlie is in Western Australia, approximately 600km east of Perth.

The company is in the process of moving its IT infrastructure from a fleet of traditional servers to virtual servers running on blade hardware. Planning began around two years ago with an eye on the expected retirement of the existing hardware. Budget approval was received around May this year, and the project began in earnest in July.

The proposed switch to VMware-based virtual servers running on an IBM BladeServer H offered several advantages. The total cost of ownership was a major consideration, and for the same total expenditure that would have necessary to install new conventional servers, KCGM was able to equip a disaster recovery site as well as its main datacentre.

With VMware's VMotion management server, high availability and disaster recovery features "just seem to work out of the box," said project manager Shaun Fessey, although some configuration is necessary to optimise these facilities.

Other benefits include a reduction in the space needed to accommodate the servers, and a cut in power consumption, reducing the company's carbon footprint.

Furthermore, VMware's flexibility means the IT group will be able to quickly implement new virtual servers as required. When more hardware capacity is needed, additional blades can be fitted to the existing chassis.

The first phase of the implementation is well under way, and involves moving 17 Windows servers -- mostly 2003, but some still running 2000 -- to the virtual environment, which will run on six dual-core blades.

The initial list of functions being transferred to virtual servers includes the Revelation service desk package, various customised mining applications, and file servers. The company's Exchange servers will be virtualised at a later date. Fessey chose a staged rollout of virtual servers to reduce the business risk associated with the project.

Some functions will remain on separate physical servers for a time, notably those requiring access to dial-up modems and fax functionality. KCGM is aware of products that will provide the required capabilities in a virtualised environment, and plans to evaluate them at a later date.

Software currently running on HP Tru64 Unix-based servers will also be left out of the virtualised environment at first. Fessey accepts that some of those applications might not port successfully, but said the company will still enjoy overall long-term savings. The size of the investment and expected savings are not being disclosed.

As part of the project, the company also invested in APC in-row cooling systems to offset the concentration of heat-producing hardware that comes with the adoption of blade servers. "Additional cooling was a concern having read so much about blades running hot, but we have not found an issue with this even prior to putting the additional cooling in," said Fessey.

"I expect it to be all up and running [at both sites] by mid-December," he said. While five months may seem a long time for a project of this nature, the company is also replacing network switches and installing additional optical fibre, all on top of the IT staff's normal workload.

"The pace of development has been steady" as staff get up to speed with virtualisation, said Fessey. KCGM decided against using consultants or contractors for the implementation due to the need for ongoing management and administration. "We're a long way away from any help," observed Fessey, so it is important that the technical staff have the knowledge and skills required to make the group self-sufficient. To that end, the company used external trainers with sessions mainly on site but also in Perth and Sydney.

"[On-site training] enabled me to have my engineers on hand in case of emergency -- we are 600km from Perth so that is an important consideration," said Fessey. It was also more cost-effective, and made the training more directly applicable to the company's systems.

Looking into the future, Fessey expects VMware will make it easier and cheaper to carry out the next hardware refresh. Once any new equipment is installed, it will be a matter of simply recovering the virtual servers on the new hardware -- something that should be possible with hardly any interruption to service thanks to VMotion and KCGM's IBM-based Fibre Channel SAN.