Server virtualisation gives Suncorp hot flushes

Mass server virtualisation has reduced Suncorp's server count, but datacentre manager David Chesterfield warns: beware the heat.
Written by Liam Tung, Contributing Writer on

Mass server virtualisation has reduced Suncorp's server count, but datacentre manager David Chesterfield warns: beware the heat.

With higher energy prices looming, Suncorp is three years into a huge ongoing consolidation project, virtualising nearly all of its servers and reducing the number of IBM Z-series mainframes.

However, during this time, Suncorp has made several large acquisitions, including GIO and last year finance giant Promina Group. With each acquisition comes the task of integrating the businesses' IT within Suncorp's existing infrastructure.

"In 2001, we bought GIO and we brought all of that processing equipment into our datacentre. Over the next year or so, we also bought some joint venture businesses from AMP. And now we have acquired Promina Group which has its datacentre in Chatswood, [NSW]," Chesterfield told ZDNet.com.au.

The acquisitions have made space in Suncorp's Brisbane CBD-based datacentre "pretty tight", said Chesterfield.

Suncorp has attacked its expanding IT infrastructure in the first instance by employing IBM to virtualise its server and mainframe environments. But while it has completed virtualising its older assets, the acquisition of Promina means a fresh round of activity.

Suncorp's business technology hosting manager, Tim Harlow, said virtualisation has been part of Suncorp's acquisition strategy for Promina, which had only virtualised pockets of its server environment.

"One of things with the merger, that's where we get a lot of operational efficiencies -- in server consolidation," Harlow told ZDNet.com.au.

Over the next eight months Suncorp will haul Promina's servers up to its datacentre in Brisbane. Harlow said his team will lift the operating system and application from each server and install them on IBM P570 and P590 shared servers.

Suncorp is also reducing its mainframe count from three IBM Z-series to two, said Harlow.

"Had we not done the virtualisation, there's no way we would be able to have all the equipment we do today," said datacentre manager, Chesterfield.

But while virtualisation has allowed consolidation, Suncorp has been unable to escape the fact its Brisbane datacentre is 15 years old.

"The growth in equipment within datacentres draws a lot more power than five years ago and there's a limit to what you can fit into a building. Fifteen years ago, we didn't think of those things. It was just 'put a datacentre there and run a new cable and plug your computer in'," said Chesterfield.

"The down side of virtualisation is that your heat load changes within a room. So, instead of it being spread nicely across the floor, you can have a high density area and then that can be hard to cool at times."

Chesterfield has had to install supplementary cooling systems to handle the heat, but the higher density servers have forced a shift in how he looks at the datacentre.

"At times there have been efforts to rebalance the room, but the focus has changed from 'bung it in', to looking at the heat loads in different areas before installing the server," he said.

The next move for Suncorp will be to shift the equipment from its ageing Brisbane datacentre to its new 2000 square metre Polaris datacentre being built in Springfield, Queensland, edging the company closer to its ambition of having just two datacentres.

Polaris has been designed to allow the base load capacity of the building to increase as demand for energy rises over the next few years, said Chesterfield.

"They have built it to be modular in terms of the UPS [uninterruptible power supply] and generator sets and they will come online as the demand for it comes up," he said.

Which servers to virtualise?
Suncorp's decision on which servers to virtualise has little to do with the mission criticality of the applications they support, according to Harlow.

"It's only about the I/O and resource demands on the server -- that's what drives you ...

... to virtualise or not. As for business criticality, in fact, there's more a drive to virtualise there because, for things like availability, instead of having one instance of that environment running, you might have five and you can lose two and still run on three," he said.

"With physical servers, you have to put in place clusters or other procedures so that if hardware fails, it kicks off lots of physical moves ... In a virtual server, all you need to do is point a copy of the machine at a new piece of tin."

Storage virtualisation
Despite the hype around TCP/IP networked storage, few businesses appear to have gone down the path. However, according to Harlow, Suncorp's CIO, ex-Telstra IT head, Jeff Smith, has lead the company's foray into this still-nascent storage arena.

"If you're looking at storage, that's quite radical to be using virtualisation and IP-attached storage," said Harlow.

Normally banking and insurance companies are not considered bleeding edge, said Harlow, but the fact that Smith had rolled out IP-networked and virtualised storage networks at Telstra gave Suncorp a leg up in its own rollout of the technology.

"Telstra have done lots of it and we work with Telstra in term of using it as a blue print. As Jeff would say, 'Why invent something your self, when can look at what the industry leaders have done'?"

All the data on Suncorp's open systems, such as its UNIX, Intel and Linux servers is stored on this IP network, said Harlow.

Because it's all TCP/IP the storage works by the device file head sitting in front of the storage, he said.

Suncorp has also moved away from its tape backup system and has installed NetApp's Nearstore backup systems, which, according to Harlow, costs around AU$2 per gigabyte.

"It's slower disk that doesn't offer real time I/O but it's got smarts," he said.

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