Go Virtual, Go Green

    Server Virtualization Helps TechSoup Reduce IT Costs and Environmental Impact



    In 2007, TechSoup applied its expertise to improve its data center operations by deploying virtual servers. A nonprofit organization itself, TechSoup provides products and advice that helps other nonprofit and nongovernmental organizations worldwide use technology to achieve their missions.


    The effort produced several positive results, including cost avoidance of US$70,000 that would have been required for additional servers under its previous implementation, as well as ongoing cost savings from using virtual servers. Reduced environmental impact, improved application performance, simpler network management, and server scalability as the organization grows are additional benefits of the TechSoup virtualization effort.


    No Room to Grow

    The TechSoup IS group serves 160 employees working at four sites in the San Francisco area. Several challenges prompted TechSoup to consider a new approach to its implementation of servers in both its main office and an off-site data center. These challenges included:


    The data center location would no longer be available, which meant TechSoup needed to move those servers to a new facility.


    Because of the large amount of equipment installed, the server room in the main office was often overheating and was running out of power and space.


    The servers were aging and could not scale to keep up with the organization's growing staff and data volumes.


    "Server management was becoming harder because we had so many of them," says Tim Suttle, director of IS infrastructure at TechSoup. "We also realized that we were using only about 5 percent of the CPU and 40 percent of memory on the physical servers, which contributed to the inefficient use of space and electrical power in our facilities."


    Virtualizing Servers and Deploying a SAN


    The key solution for the space and power challenges at both facilities was to replace roughly 90 physical servers with 8 virtual servers. The virtual servers run on two HP BladeSystem c3000 hardware platforms with VMware virtualization software. One platform is located at the data center site, the other at the TechSoup main office.


    As part of this virtualization project, TechSoup also implemented an iSCSI (Small Computer System Interface over IP) storage area network (SAN) that connects storage devices to TechSoup's existing Cisco Catalyst 4948 model Gigabit Ethernet switches. The 4948 switches are dedicated for the iCSCI traffic so other voice and data do not pass through these switches. The four switches are deployed in a redundant configuration.


    Other Cisco products deployed in the TechSoup network include the Cisco Unified Communications Manager and Cisco Unified Contact Center Express for voice communications, as well as Cisco routers, content switches, and firewalls.


    Improvements for Users, the Organization, and the Environment


    The server virtualization project has produced many benefits for TechSoup, including power and cost savings. TechSoup has been able to avoid costs of US $30,000 for remote server control hardware and electrical work, and $40,000 for and HVAC upgrade in the server room that was overheating.


    Ongoing cost savings are expected because the virtual servers require significantly less electrical power and cooling. Consolidating data storage on the SAN eliminates the expense of running and cooling distributed hard disks. The iSCSI SAN also means TechSoup does not need to purchase storage drives until they are actually needed, which controls expenditures and reduces the potential for unnecessary equipment. Figure 1 below shows power savings before and after the project. The savings percentage will increase as virtual hosts instead of physical hosts are added.



    Figure 1


    Environmental benefits.

    In addition to the reduced power demand that produces environment benefits, Less IT equipment also means a reduced impact from device manufacturing and eventual disposal. Further, TechSoup's SAN provider purchased carbon offset credits to reflect the production impact of the storage hardware.


    Improved application performance.

    The mean time between failure (MTBF) metric for TechSoup's core enterprise applications has been reduced dramatically: from eight hours per week to just one hour in every two weeks since the change to virtualized servers. This change means better availability of enterprise applications for TechSoup employees.


    Simpler network management.

    Through consolidating and virtualizing the servers, Suttle estimates system administration time savings of 220 hours since solution deployment. Other time-saving benefits include the ability to manage servers remotely and less cabling to manage.


    Scalable server design.

    As the organization continues to grow, new virtual servers will be much faster and easier to implement in TechSoup's blade environment, without adding space or cabling.





    Figure 2 above shows the TechSoup virtualization savings at their headquarters. As more virtual hosts are rolled out, the savings will increase.




    Extending Technical Knowledge

    At the time of the server transition, one TechSoup technician held a Cisco CCNA certification. Suttle notes the value that employees with Cisco certification can bring to any IT project that involves the organizational network. "Technicians with the certification training have a better understanding of the network environment and are better prepared to support our entire network and its services," he says.

    Now, two additional technicians are studying for the CCNA exam, bringing expertise to a network that allows TechSoup employees to share their knowledge with other organizations around the globe.




    Based in San Francisco, California USA, TechSoup has received equipment grants from the Cisco Foundation for its internal network. It also administers the TechSoup Stock Program, which distributes new and refurbished equipment (including Cisco networking products) to eligible organizations.