Part 2: Guide to IT consolidation

When is the right time to consolidate your IT resources...or is there ever a good time?

Part 1
Part 2
Application servers
Case study
Executive Summary

When is the right time to consolidate your IT resources...
or is there ever a good time?

ZDNet Australia  brings you the second part of this IT Consolidation special report. For Part I, please click here.

Consolidation is in vogue. Replacing a mixed bag of old systems with fewer and more powerful systems can be an attractive proposition, but when is the right time to take that route, and what are the traps to avoid? Many aspects of the IT infrastructure are open to consolidation, from entire data centres through application servers, databases, storage, and even end-user CPU power.

Storage consolidation has been one of the first responses of organisations seeking to cut their IT costs, says Harry Christian, manager, South Asia marketing and alliances at Network Appliance.

Server farms were often installed to meet demand for storage, not CPU power, he says. Server proliferation caused management problems and sub-optimal use of storage. Replacing direct-attached storage with storage appliances and SANs cuts the number of servers needed, in some cases from around 100 to a handful. The result is less management, easier growth and optimised servers. "That's been our bread and butter," he says.

Clive Gold, director of integrated marketing at EMC says moving to networked storage can give mid-tier organisations a 15-20 percent cost saving. If that's sufficient to justify the cost of installation, they should go ahead. If not, hardware cost reductions over the last 18 months or so will mean that more companies will be able to benefit from storage consolidation.

Once networked storage is in place, a further 25-30 percent saving can be achieved by putting data onto the right class of storage. These savings are possible with as few as two storage classes, he says. Once again, it's a question of doing the arithmetic in order to decide whether the project is worthwhile, but recognising that not all the information in a mission-critical system is of equal value and implementing information lifecycle management can yield big savings.

"A lot of the costs here are tied up with management," says Gold, so automation can help control expenditure, but essentially the required operational parameters determine the cost. After that, it's largely a matter of storing data on the most appropriate class of storage device.

These lessons have been learned at the high end, and are now being put into practice by the mid-tier, he says; storage systems that cost millions of dollars a couple of years ago now costs hundreds of thousands, and in a couple of years time they will probably be available for just tens of thousands.

Jose Albe, professional services manager for Australia and New Zealand at StorageTek says the main triggers for storage consolidation are found in the procurement process, during a technology refresh or a data centre relocation, or while moving from a legacy application to a new system. Such changes provide both the opportunity for consolidation and necessary budget.

As noted above, new servers are capable of handling multiple applications, and the use of consolidated storage makes application stacking easier as the data has already been offloaded, says Christian. Devices such as NetApp's Filer take care of mapping files to blocks, reducing the load on the servers and possibly allowing even greater consolidation. "People are becoming more lean and streamlined about their server farms." Christian says.

Information has previously been stored at the edge of networks for performance reasons, says Gold, but the decision is no longer black and white. Some data may be centralised, and some remote storage may be managed centrally. For example, remote servers may connect to centralised storage over iSCSI, and remote NAS units used for file storage may be managed and backed up from a central facility.

Consolidation puts all the organisation's eggs into one basket, so it needs to be a strong basket--that is, one that does not have a single point of failure. Apart from high availability technologies such as mirroring and redundant components, it is possible to arrange things so that in the event that a local NAS unit breaks down, applications can be remapped to a central backup copy.

"Moving to networked storage can give mid-tier organisations a 15-20 percent cost saving."
Providing bulletproof access, for example with synchronous mirroring at a second location) "comes at a premium", he says, but at the other end of the scale you can guarantee no loss of data at modest cost providing you are prepared to accept that restoration might take two hours.

The time needed for backup and restore may exceed the available window after consolidation, warns Frank Favetti, Avanade's practice director for technical infrastructure, so it is important to reconsider the backup strategy, for example by using volume shadow copy for point-in-time backup or by moving to network-based storage that provides a similar facility.

Just as reduced maintenance bills can cover the cost of server consolidation, Christian suggests such savings can be sufficient to pay for consolidated storage.

Apart from the dollar savings, moving to consolidated storage can reclaim data centre real estate in the short term. Moving ahead, the amount of data being stored keeps rising keeps rising, but with consolidated storage, new and higher density drives--or even complete storage units--can be swapped in non-disruptively.

Simon Elisha, senior technical consultant at Veritas says "You really know when [it's time to consolidate] when you feel the pain." This pain may be felt in terms of overworked staff, excessive maintenance costs, or a clear need for back-end storage replacement.

Consolidation should make financial and functional sense, which is typically the case when moving from direct-attached to networked storage. Storage is the low hanging fruit of consolidation, he says, and is easy to do with tools such as Veritas Volume Manager. "It's a cool technical thing to do, and it makes good business sense."

Overconsolidation is a risk, Christian warns, and adequate redundancy should be retained to ensure that if one storage unit fails, the overall system will keep running.

Consolidation doesn't always mean purchasing new equipment, says Graham Schultz, strategic alliance manager Asia Pacific, Brocade Communications. Sometimes, it's possible to use existing gear more efficiently.

Despite the trend to storage consolidation through SANs, technical, geographical, political, and availability considerations may mean organisations do not want to completely merge their switching fabrics. Brocade's Fibre Channel Router gives such organisations the ability to share resources across multiple fabrics (eg, so an expensive automated tape library can be used from multiple SANs) without merging them. Such a virtual SAN (VSAN) is controlled from existing management software, so no retraining is required and the whole thing can be managed centrally if required.

With the required plumbing built into Brocade's platform, other applications such as virtual tape backup can be added later. Since Fibre Channel, iSCSI and Fibre Channel Router all run on the same box, "the customer will get ongoing benefits without having to change the infrastructure," for example by linking low-performance servers to networked storage via iSCSI. This approach can combine the best aspects of distributed and consolidated resources, Schultz suggests, claiming that operational expenditure can be reduced through better and more efficient management of resources, and capital expenditure can be controlled by providing better resource utilisation.

Before choosing this course, organisations need to take a broad view during the planning stage, including the cost of data traffic and any legislative issues such as the requirement for financial organisations to maintain offsite backups.

Many medium-sized businesses have shied away from storage consolidation, says Christian, due to confusion over SAN, NAS, Fiber Channel and so on, but NetApp provides SAN and NAS facilities in a single box, and "unified storage has really helped a lot of medium to large enterprises," he says.

Moving to SAN has delivered genuine benefits, says Elisha, though a lot of the savings weren't immediately apparent. Big benefits can be obtained if it is done properly, which means knowing how to put all the pieces together, how to manage the environment, and building in at least a degree of future proofing--"Today's new system is tomorrow's legacy system," he warns.

Part 1
Part 2
Application servers
Case study
Executive Summary

Page II: When is the right time to consolidate your IT resources...or is there ever a good time?

And in general...
The low hanging fruit for consolidation are file, print, e-mail, and database servers, says Favetti. They provide improved performance and functionality, and once in place IT staff can explore the potential within the organisation for new features.

But picking the low hanging fruit is a tactical approach, warns Albe. "It's only going to buy you a little time--the effectiveness isn't going to be there." Instead, he counsels a more strategic approach, such as examining existing direct-attached storage and looking for economies of scale that can be achieved through centralisation. If you can get the required performance levels, the economies are fantastic, he says, but it's important to understand who owns the data and you ensure its availability meets their needs.

"Assumption is a very risky thing," he warns, so engage the right stakeholders and put a good project manager on the job. Being insufficiently farsighted can cause problems--if consolidation is done simply as a cost cutting measure (eg, by reducing headcount), you might overlook internal plans for mergers and acquisitions, changes to disaster recovery capability, or new applications. Any of these can turn IT staffing costs into secondary considerations.

This sentiment is echoed by Favetti. "Consolidation is not just a technical thing, it's a business thing as well," he says, so executive buy-in is important. "It's a question of ownership," he suggests, and organisations should consider the business and financial perspectives, risks and benefits.

An end-to-end view is necessary for successful consolidation, suggests Paul Muller, head of HP software marketing, strategy, and alliances, so it is important to take the time to understand your environment at the outset. If you don't understand the chain of applications, servers, storage, networks and so on, you may not be able to predict the effects of any individual changes you make. It's better to plan than react, he says.

"Good management is the core underlying driver for consolidation," says Muller. While cost reduction (or at least cost control) is important, organisations are not necessarily looking for the lowest cost but for the right cost. He draws a parallel with the airline industry, where success is possible with either low cost and low service or high cost and high service.

Albe suggests a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis before consolidation, looking at data and its attributes today and into the future.

"Rather than 'do more with less', 'do the right thing' and plan first," he says. Although people are looking at cost savings, they might get them more quickly by avoiding tactical decisions and instead doing the right thing at the right time, using the right people.

Christian agrees, suggesting consolidation should be regarded as a strategic decision, made with a two-to-five year perspective.

Kevin McIsaac, research director Asia Pacific, META Group recommends a stepwise approach to consolidation in the data centre.

  1. How many different locations do you use? Can you consolidate to a smaller number? This will allow centralisation of staff and economies of scale, but depends on the networking capabilities of the software, the cost of bandwidth, and internal politics. "It's not a huge return, but it's one most people start with," he says.
  2. Storage consolidation. SANs are expensive, but there are certainly advantages to external storage, including quicker recovery of valuable data, an improvement in utilisation from between 40 and 60 percent to 80 percent or so, and modest hardware and operational cost savings.
  3. Stop and think. Putting everything onto one big box doesn't make sense. The cost of servers with more than four CPUs is between two and three times the cost of the same amount of processing power purchased as one to four-way servers. Also, these extra capital costs are certain while any operational cost savings are only anticipated. One 16-way server might be cheaper than 30 single CPU boxes and it can be capable of delivering the same workload, but it's not easy to run a server at 60-80 percent utilisation, so more sophisticated management tools are needed.

Part 1
Part 2
Application servers
Case study
Executive Summary

Page III: When is the right time to consolidate your IT resources...or is there ever a good time?

Case study: consolidated storage
Around three years ago, McCann World Group (the parent company of McCann Advertising) was in a situation where it had to keep buying new servers just to get more storage capacity, says national director of IT Brett Winn, and this also meant 50 percent of an administrator's working hours were taken up simply managing the location of files.

The company installed a Network Appliance Filer with 500GB of storage at its Sydney offices and within a month that task was only occupying five percent of that person's time, and the number of servers stabilised. "Consolidated storage was a very smart move for us," says Winn, who found the Filer very easy to work with. Before it was installed, "I didn't realise how much time we spent managing disk storage," he says.

"For us, it's about consolidating backend storage," and the company still has around 25 servers attached to the storage system. This approach makes it very easy to fix server hardware problems, as a box can be brought back online without needing to restore large amounts of data. Storage consolidation freed up server processing power to the extent that new functions such as client Web site hosting and new payroll and timesheet applications could be deployed on the existing servers.

Over time, the capacity of the Filer was increased and it has now reached that model's limit of 1TB. More storage is required, and as part of the project Winn intends to add centralised backup and archiving facilities for McCann's Melbourne, Brisbane, and Canberra offices as the first step in implementing a formal disaster recovery plan to ensure the US-owned company meets the requirements of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.

"Storage management is a hugely important part of our business," he says. The next purchase will have a capacity of between 5 and 10T, which Winn hopes will last for around three years.

Winn points out that it is important to determine the features you need from a storage unit. Network Appliance and EMC offer relatively expensive products, but the expense can be justified when you need features like redundancy and snapshots. Winn is also full of praise for the remote diagnostic system that means a Network Appliance technician can be at the door with a replacement drive before his staff are aware that a failure has occurred.

On the other hand, companies such as Dell have cheaper though less capable NAS units when you simply need bulk storage, and McCann does use Dell NAS units. Winn is working towards a tiered strategy where less important or rarely used data is moved onto slower and cheaper devices. In such circumstances, it is important that the head of IT engages with management to ensure that the selected technology meets user requirements such as the maximum time needed to restore data following a major failure.

"It's going to be an interesting few months, but at the end of it we'll be in a better position," he says.

"I wouldn't do it any other way...[consolidated storage] is much better than anything else."

Executive summary

  • Centralising user processing with a thin client strategy reduces the management load, helps provide secure remote access and simplifies disaster recovery.
  • Server consolidation simplifies administration, but that may be due to increased homogeneity rather than a reduction in the number of units. Either way, administrators require higher skill levels as any error has a bigger impact on the organisation.
  • Windows Server 2003 probably can support mixed application loads, though not everyone is convinced. Virtual servers provide a route to high utilisation with less complexity.
  • Exchange Server 2003 enables substantial server consolidation.
  • The elimination of maintenance costs on old hardware plus the reduction in floor space, power consumption can largely fund a consolidation project.
  • Software costs may increase, decrease or stay the same after consolidation, depending on the vendor's terms.
  • Triggers for consolidation include software licence renewal, hardware replacement, and new requirements (eg, to support mobility).
  • Plan and implement carefully, prioritising the most valuable sub-projects rather than going for a big bang. Involve affected business units, and don't sacrifice strategic advantage for tactical benefits.
  • Starting with storage consolidation may ease server consolidation.
  • Network performance and reliability may be crucial to successful consolidation.