Monster Savings from Virtualization on Sesame Street

At Sesame Workshop, imagination is limitless but data center space and budgets are not. Take a look at how this non-profit is using open source virtualization tools to revamp its server strategy and count up substantial savings.

Noah Broadwater, VP of information services for Sesame Workshop , likes using open source virtualization tools for several good reasons—starting with green ones that have nothing to do with Oscar the Grouch.

Broadwater recently faced a budget crunch at the same time he needed new Web servers and was physically running out of room in his data center. His solution: new HP blade servers based on Novell's SUSE Linux Enterprise server software, which builds in Xen's virtualization software (Xen is the leading open source alternative to VMware's offering.)

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"We said let's try it," says Broadwater, who leads the non-profit company's IT staff of about 20 people. "It saved us from buying new servers." Happy with the results from virtualizing the Web servers, Broadwater planned a substantial virtualization project to make over his other servers, starting with his test and development boxes, beginning about one year ago.

The Vendor Road Less Taken

Sesame Workshop had been spending approximately $250,000 every three years on hardware and support for its Sun Solaris servers, Broadwater says. The new approach combined 25 virtual machines onto 4 physical servers within a blade center and reduced that cost to $24,000 every 3 years, he says. Broadwater's team also consolidated 10 servers including application, image and log servers onto 4 physical boxes. When done with its virtualization effort, the company will reclaim 2 racks worth of space in its already cramped data center, and reduce power consumption by 15 percent, Broadwater estimates.

Broadwater's desire to save is not unique: Many IT leaders now tap into the consolidation benefits of virtualization. But his choice of vendor is relatively unusual. Today, the overwhelming majority of enterprise shops use VMware's tools.

Do many enterprise leaders even think Novell when they're considering virtualization options? "On the technology side, Novell has made significant headway; however I think they need to up their marketing efforts to further build brand recognition for their virtualization offerings," says Burton Group research analyst Chris Wolf. "That is also crucial in building a strong partner ecosystem." VMware and Citirx have rounded up more partners to date than Novell, to offer complementary products to IT managers.

With Microsoft entering the virtualization market with its Hyper-V hypervisor (expected to ship in August) and a virtualization management suite, Novell will face even more competition. But that's not a death knell for Novell, Wolf says. "The virtualization market is more than large enough for Novell to carve out its own sizable chunk," Wolf says.

Out With Relics, In With Open Source

So with VMware commanding the enterprise virtualization market, why didn't Broadwater use the leader? "First, obviously, cost," Broadwater says. "VMware has a great solution, it's just very expensive. Second, we're a firm believer in and use a lot of open source. Not just because of cost but because of philosophy. We actually work on open source projects and give code back." Broadwater has been using open source tools such as the Apache Web server software for years.

As for why he went with Novell SUSE Linux, comfort played a part here. "We've had Novell in the data center a long time nothing against Red Hat [and its Linux products,]" Broadwater says. "With Novell, I knew what my support was, I knew how to work that system."

"The plan is, within the next three years, to be off Solaris completely," moving over to as much Linux as possible on servers, Broadwater says. "I looked around at what I saw with my engineers. I told my engineers 'Every one of you knows Linux. If there's a problem with the base OS, if it's Linux, any one of you can fix it.' Today my Solaris guy can't fix Windows problems," he says. "It [virtualizing on Linux] also makes our disaster recovery a lot simpler."

What about the internal IT group politics of making such a broad change in OS strategy? Respondents to our recent survey, Your Virtualized State in 2008, ranked IT organization politics issues as their second toughest management challenge around virtualization, second only to balancing server workloads.

"We've always had a heterogeneous environment," Broadwater says. "They all knew Linux. We've had, obviously, some fear. Our Unix administrator has been supporting Solaris for 18 years. His job isn't going away; he's getting certified on Linux," Broadwater says. The small size of his IT group helps minimize the political battles, he adds.

As for what's next: By June 2009, Sesame Workshop also plans to virtualize its 10 non-critical, low utilization servers, some of which are running Microsoft Windows Server 2003. Some of these are one-application, one-server relics, a problem that many CIOs know all too well.

One example: "Our conference room scheduler has its own server," Broadwater says. "It's taking up space in my data center. It uses maybe 7 percent of the processor [in the server] and none of the memory."

One reason this resource-waster has hung around: The scheduling application requires Microsoft's IIS (Internet Information Sevices) web server, Broadwater says. "Everything else we run runs on Apache [web server]," Broadwater says. Thanks to virtualization, application servers like this one will soon be a thing of the past for Sesame Workshop.

4 Tips for Managing Virtualization

Sesame Workshop IT leader Noah Broadwater shares lessons learned during his open source virtualization project:

1. Know your systems: "Get a true baseline of how your systems are running," Broadwater says. "Two days out of the month a server may spike like crazy because a special application job kills it." Take as long a snapshot of server behavior as possible—at least one month's activity—he advises.

2. Build in extra time to test virtualized servers: "It takes a while to get it right," Broadwater says. You will need time to test how much I/O and memory your apps consume, to ensure that application performance doesn't slow down because you combine too may resource-hungry apps on the same physical server. Xen, like all virtualization tools, is relatively young and you'll need time to get used to it, he adds.

3. Don't create a nightmare on backup street: In one instance, Broadwater's IT team virtualized 4 servers onto one physical machine; all 4 VMs were scheduled to back up at the same time, and created a bottleneck for the backup software and the physical server, Broadwater says. "Think out your backup strategy. We just changed the timing. That first full backup could be a nightmare."

4. Don't feel pressured regarding management tools: One year into its virtualization project, Sesame Workshop has yet to buy any third-party management tools for virtualization, Broadwater notes, though he is now looking at adopting tools from Platespin (recently acquired by Novell) tools for physical to virtual server conversions. These tools could save his team manual labor and time when consolidating Windows physical servers, he believes.

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