CIO Summit: Turning to virtualization to cut costs and carbon

How South East Water IT manager, Stuart Brockwell, reclaimed data centre real estate for desk space
South East Water (SEW) IT manager, Stuart Brockwell

South East Water (SEW) IT manager, Stuart Brockwell

Faced with significant business growth and constant pressure to improve the operations while coping a decreasing budget, South East Water (SEW) IT manager, Stuart Brockwell, turned to virtualization.

Brockwell told this year’s CIO Summit in Sydney that the business had experienced a 38 per cent increase in staff over the last decade and identified the need for a solution to make savings both environmentally and financially without impacting on the business.

See all the action from the event in the CIO Summit 2011 slideshow.

“Our view is if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it and we were no different, so we installed some intelligent meters in our data centre and began tracking our power usage,” Brockwell said.

“It gave us the ability to track in real time how much power we were consuming in our data centre and I was quite surprised to learn that 30 per cent of the power consumed at our head office location could be directly attributed to our data centre.”

The company’s data centre was pegged as the starting point for change. It was operating at a one server per three employees ratio back in 2007 with a total of 180 physical servers “jammed” into a space designed to accommodate much less.

“With large volumes of infrastructures… the challenge for us was providing enough power in event that we lost main power and fail over to the generator,” he said.

“With three minutes of run time by UPS, I just had enough time to grab the keys and run down to the generator and start it manually in the event that it did failover.”

When the business reached the maximum capacity of 400 kilograms per square metre within the data centre, moving equipment became a task facing the approval of engineers and managers — and came at a cost. The number of air conditioners was also increasing due to a combination of hotspots and poor circulation.

“We were in a position with some tough decisions to make," he said. "We considered options like decreasing the floor carrying capacity of our data centre, expanding the size of our data centre or potentially relocating to another office more suited to our needs, but each of these were presented and subsequently rejected by the business.

"What we needed was an alternate to buying additional hardware and so we looked at virtualization as the answer.”

The first steps were establishing testing environments, Brockwell said, in an attempt to increase the confidence of the business and move away from a dedicated hardware mentality to a shared services facility.

“We started with just a few servers in March 2007 and by December that year we had achieved a target we set of 85 per cent virtualization across our server infrastructure — this allowed us to take 15 racks out of our data centre.

“As a direct of removing excess hardware we had a subsequent decrease in power consumption and heat generation which allowed us to eventually shut down one of our air conditioners.”

By mid-2010 the business had removed so much equipment from the data centre it was able to resize it, reducing the floor space by 25 per cent and converting it back into “much needed” desks.

“There was a subsequent reduction in backend server administration as well, which allowed us to restructure and redesign our team allowing our people to be more focused on providing services for the business rather than providing backend services such as patching.”

As a result of the virtualization of its servers, SEW's greenhouse gas emissions were reduced by the equivalent of taking 100 vehicles off the road every year.

“In terms of hardware refresh alone we had to replace our servers every three years, so the savings have been just short of a million every three years which has allows us to spend the money on different process improvements or business benefits.”

One of the biggest challenges facing the business following the implementation, Brockwell said, was learning to manage the virtualized server sprawl.

“The majority of the growth has been development and testing environments. So where before we focused on the physical servers, we now have a dedicated dev and testing environment for every application we have,” he said.

“The challenge of containing our virtualised server sprawl is going to be a tough one and one we don’t have an answer for just yet.”