Virtualization eases server sprawl at healthcare company

Server consolidation and time savings are the two big benefits of virtualization, according to one healthcare company.

Joan Goodchild

Virtualization was still a mainframe concept and VMware Inc. was just a small start-up when Baptist Healthcare System in Louisville, Kentucky first started virtualizing servers in 1999.

Baptist Healthcare, a non-profit healthcare system with five hospitals around the state of Kentucky, first started experimenting with VMware's Workstation strictly as a test and development tool.

"As a healthcare organization we have to juggle many software vendors and different levels of software maturity. . . Many of our servers were underutilized."
Tom Taylor
Senior Client and Server Infrastructure ManagerBaptist Healthcare

"We got tired of the mentality of five machines stacked up, one for each thing," said Tom Taylor, the company's senior client and server infrastructure manager.

The first trial runs convinced Taylor that virtualization was going to play an active role in his data center, rather than being a peripheral technology. Taylor had sprawl problems to solve, and he tapped virtualization as the ideal way to tackle the growing server footprint.

"As a healthcare organization we have to juggle many software vendors and different levels of software maturity," said Taylor. "We found we could not have different versions of an application on the same server. So, many of our servers were underutilized."

Adding to the server sprawl issue was the fact that Baptist Healthcare is located in the Eastern time zone, but has one location in the Central time zone. Taylor frequently had to install duplicate servers for applications that could not accommodate multiple time zones.

To cut down on the number of physical machines in the data center, Baptist began virtualizing more servers for test and development with VMware GSX Server. Eventually, Taylor's confidence in virtualization grew, and he decided to virtualize some applications for production, too. At that point, he purchased ESX Server, VMware's higher-end offering.

In six years, virtualization in Taylor's IT department has gone from a three-server farm, used strictly for test and development, to 15 physical servers hosting 225 virtual machines (VMs). Most of the VMs run Windows operating systems, although Red Hat Linux is used on some servers for development tasks. Applications running in VMs include Microsoft SharePoint and Microsoft SQL Server. The software runs on Hewlett-Packard Co.'s ProLiant 380 and 580 server models, which are two-and-four CPU boxes.

Besides consolidation, Taylor said the other benefit of server virtualization in the data center has been time savings. Before virtualization, deploying a physical server took three to four weeks. Today, he said, "a virtual machine takes me about 25 minutes to deploy."

Taylor's software virtualization exception

Overall, Taylor's experience with server virtualization has been positive, but issues have cropped up. For instance, some third-party support for applications, such as monitoring agents and backup agents, has not meshed well with VMware ESX, causing instability. Software latency issues with hosted applications have been a problem that Taylor thinks could be a byproduct of pushing the physical host to its limits. The company decided not to virtualize Citrix, software that provides secure access to applications, in production because the logon process was too slow.

"When you have healthcare workers that need access to an application, seconds count," Taylor said.

On the other hand, virtualization has made applications more accessible to Baptist's healthcare workers, as it has increased server uptime. For instance, using VMware VMotion and an HP StorageWorks Enterprise Virtual Array (EVA) storage area network (SAN), Taylor can move a VM from one physical host to another. The VM files being moved are stored on the SAN.

Besides its other benefits, the ability to do complex IT tasks without incurring downtime is a valuable and tangible benefit of virtualization, particularly for a business where seconds lost make a difference in customers' health.

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