February 2009

Green IT

Bill Janakos
APA Manager of Information Technology

One afternoon, as I stood in APA's server room amid the blinking lights and the dull hum of several hundred cooling fans, I wondered why the darn air conditioner never shut off. Shaking my head, I said to myself, "This is such a waste! Half of these servers are doing practically nothing. Is there a better way?"

The problem was that we have several servers that must keep running but do not work very hard. They perform essential but not particularly complicated routine tasks. They have super-fast processors; large, fast-spinning hard drives; and plenty of memory. Their large fans cool the super-fast processors and the hard drives that spin as fast as jet engines. All of this activity consumes quite a bit of electricity, and as a result, produces a lot of heat. Our antiquated and insufficient air conditioner was running at full capacity around the clock, and the computer room was still 15 degrees warmer than it should have been.

Problem identified. So what was the solution?

Our over-powered servers were running great, but they did not need that type of performance. They had been perfectly happy running in the old box, and even in the older, slower, clunkier box before that. However, there was no going back. Best practices dictate that the older boxes would fail simply because of their age. It is my highest priority to ensure that our servers do not fail.

I talked to my staff, to other colleagues, and to vendors. I realized that what I really needed to find was a way to use our servers' resources more efficiently and reduce their total number. I needed to consolidate them into a single, manageable unit.

My research led me to "Virtualization," the method of partitioning one physical computer into multiple "virtual" servers. Each virtual server has the capability to run on its own dedicated machine; it functions as though it is a truly independent computer. I can take a single physical server, a single box if you will, and install several independent operating systems that run simultaneously on that one machine. Each virtual server can be started, stopped, and rebooted independently of all others and independently of the physical machine.

I could potentially take 50 individual physical servers and by applying virtualization technology, cut that number down to 10. When I began, I would have been happy with 20!

I figured there had to be a catch. What would it cost? To my surprise, the costs were not outrageous. In addition to the investment in Virtualization software, all I had to purchase was one single physical server and the licenses for multiple operating systems.

Currently, APA is running three Virtual Server Systems with a fourth on the way. Each one runs no fewer than five virtual servers with mixed operating systems (Windows Server and Linux). We have 15 "virtual" servers running on three physical computers. IT staff can start and stop each one independently and each has its own IP address. To the rest of APA staff — the end users — there's no apparent difference from the 15 "gas guzzlers" we used to operate.

Where's the green? Now that we have 15 computers consolidated into three, we have one-fifth the number of power cords, surge protectors, cooling fans, processors, hard drives, and memory. We have 15 finely tuned computers consuming the energy of three. We are not consuming the kilowatts that we were six months ago. The computer room is now only 10 degrees warmer than it should be and we are well on our way to my original goal of consolidating down to 10 servers. Perhaps then that old air conditioner will shut off once in a while.