Lafayette College improves productivity, flexibility with Red Hat Enterprise Virtualization

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June 3, 2013

Saddled with an inflexible legacy IT infrastructure, Lafayette College needed a more efficient and scalable way to keep pace with its growing demand for IT services.

Customer: Lafayette College

“Server deployment used to be a very involved process. We would gather our specs, call the vendor, wait 2 weeks for delivery, then rack the server and so on. With Red Hat Enterprise Virtualization, I can turn out a new web server in roughly 30 minutes from start to finish." - Nathan Lager

Industry: Education
Geography: North America
Country: United States


Business Challenge:

Saddled with an inflexible legacy IT infrastructure, Lafayette College needed a more efficient and scalable way to keep pace with its growing demand for IT services.

Software:

Red Hat Enterprise Linux
Red Hat Enterprise Virtualization

Hardware:

Dell M1000e Blade Chassis, Dell M710 HD Blade Servers

Benefits:

After deploying Red Hat® Enterprise Virtualization in its environment, the college’s IT organization reduced server deployment time from weeks to hours, enabling staff members to spend less time on administrative tasks and more time pursuing innovative solutions to complex problems.

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Background:

Saddled with an inflexible legacy IT infrastructure, Lafayette College needed a more efficient and scalable way to keep pace with its growing demand for IT services.

Business Challenge:

An inflexible legacy infrastructure with underutilized physical servers

Lafayette College’s Information Technology Services (ITS) team is responsible for overseeing the college’s academic and administrative systems and the robust information technology infrastructure that supports them. Heavily invested in the open-source model for application development and support, staff often contribute code and other enhancements to the developer community at large. Building and maintaining open and standards-based systems has been a cornerstone of their approach to providing IT services to the college community. ITS comprises six departments: office of the CIO, administrative information systems, instructional technology, network and systems, user services, and web application development.

“If it’s related to Information Technology, we are probably involved with it,” said John Fulton, director of network and systems, Lafayette College ITS. “Technology has been playing an increasingly major role in higher education and the college understands that, so it’s a great time to be in IT at Lafayette.”

Rapid growth can bring a host of unforeseen challenges. As early as 2007, Fulton found himself frustrated by the limitations of a legacy environment that was full of underutilized physical servers.

“The inefficiency of our infrastructure was, in large part, a result of inflexibility,” said Fulton. “For example, we had a web server with several hosts, each running different software versions. I could choose apps based on the software we were already running, or run conflicting versions on the same server, or buy another server. None of those options were appealing to me.”

Fortunately for Fulton, 2007 marked the emergence of virtualization as a viable solution for combating server sprawl and other IT inefficiencies. Always quick to embrace innovation, he began investigating options for virtualizing the Lafayette College environment.

Solution:

Red Hat Enterprise Virtualization provides open standards with enterprise-class support

For Fulton, virtualization represented a new direction for his organization. “I can’t imagine the Lafayette network without this technology,” he says. “We can slice and dice a server according to our current software requirements and business needs. We can clone a machine with just a few clicks. And we have the flexibility to choose applications based on meaningful criteria—not just software compatibility.”

Fulton prefers to use open source technology whenever possible, so that’s where he began his search for a virtualization solution. “I believe that open source has greater long-term value than proprietary solutions,” said Fulton. “We can access the source code, see how it works, and change it if necessary. Why would I want to give up that freedom? Several people think that we choose open source to cut costs, but that’s not the case at all. We choose it because it offers the same features we would get from a proprietary solution but we don’t have to deal with restrictive licenses, and we receive beneficial freedoms proprietary software can’t deliver.”

The Lafayette ITS team tried a number of approaches to virtualization before settling on Red Hat Enterprise Virtualization. First, the team built a Xen cluster, then a Kernel-based Virtual Machine (KVM) cluster. The team even deployed a few servers from a proprietary vendor. Finally, in 2012, ITS made the strategic decision to virtualize the majority of its infrastructure on Red Hat Enterprise Virtualization.

“In a way, we were evolving along with Red Hat,” said Fulton. “Xen was the original virtualization technology that Red Hat offered, followed by KVM. And during that time, we gradually moved all of our servers to a hypervisor supported by Red Hat. We had faith that the open source community would eventually create a superior solution to help us build a more agile IT infrastructure, and that’s exactly what happened.”

ITS now manages two datacenters, each with an IBM XIV running on diverse fiber paths. The data-centers contain a total of 3 Dell M1000e Blade Chassis—2 in the primary facility, 1 in the secondary facility—housing Dell M710 Blade Servers. A Red Hat Enterprise Virtualization production cluster runs in each data center, with a development cluster in the primary facility. Together, the datacenters contain a total of 18 hypervisors.

“We probably have six or seven terabytes’ worth of virtual machines (VMs) allocated across both storage area networks (SANs),” said Nathan Lager, systems administrator, Lafayette College. “I’m estimating 150 virtual servers in all, about 90% of which are on Red Hat.”

Fulton notes that the Red Hat Enterprise Virtualization API was a major selling point. “For people who know how to script, the Red Hat Enterprise Virtualization command line is an essential feature,” he said. “While the graphical user interface (GUI) is great and meets our need, the command line provides even more value. And as things become more automated in the IT world, the command line will be king. You need to know how to program. And this tool is designed for programmers.”

The Red Hat support team adds to the success of the Red Hat Enterprise Virtualization implementation at Lafayette.

“With many open source solutions, getting support means running a Google search,” said Lager. “That’s not the case with Red Hat Enterprise Virtualization. When we run into a unique, complex problem, it’s great to have instant access to experts who represent a reliable vendor like Red Hat.

Benefits:

Reducing server deployment time from weeks to minutes

Virtualization saves time. With Lafayette College’s legacy infrastructure, setting up a new web server would often take several weeks from start to finish.

“Server deployment used to be a very involved process,” said Lager. “We would gather our specifications, call the vendor, wait 2 weeks for delivery, then rack the server and so on. With Red Hat Enterprise Virtualization, I can turn out a new web server in roughly 30 minutes from start to finish. Adding a hypervisor to the cluster is also simple; join it to the cluster and start migrating VMs.”

“Our developers often ask for new VMs on a weekly basis,” said Fulton. “There’s no way we could meet that level of demand without a virtualized infrastructure.”

By spending less time on building physical machines, IT staff members can now devote their energy to more strategic tasks.

“For me, a lot of my time savings went into making our services better,” said Lager. “With more time to think about improvements and pursue innovative solutions, I can contribute a lot more value to our service offerings.”

These time savings also translate into a healthier work-life balance—and better peace of mind.

“I don’t lie awake at night wondering if a server is going to fail, and I don’t need to rush to the office when something goes wrong,” said Lager. “If a server does fail in the middle of the night, I can walk out of my bedroom, boot up my laptop, and access the console of a failed machine with my VPN.”

Other plans for the future include possible deployments of Red Hat’s Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) and Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) offerings, OpenShift, and Red Hat CloudForms. OpenShift would enable the IT team to develop and scale applications in a Red Hat CloudForms environment.

“With OpenShift and CloudForms, we would see even bigger time savings,” says Fulton. “We wouldn’t need 30 minutes to deploy a VM—our developers could do it instantly. And with those enhancements in productivity, we could find even more ways to foster innovation and push this institution forward.”

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