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Blade servers were nothing to fear, retailer finds

Quixtar, running out of space with its usual rackmount servers, decided to try blade servers for more power inside its data center to speed up server and application deployments.

When the IT team for Internet retailer Quixtar Inc. began searching for more powerful servers to launch a new e-commerce site, the walls started closing in.

"We discovered that we didn't have enough room in our data center to upgrade to and add more of our standard servers," said Steve Kesselring, IT infrastructure manager for Quixtar, the Grand Rapids, Mich.-based subsidiary of Alticor Inc. Quixtar supports a network of independent health and beauty product resellers that generated more than $5 billion in sales last year.

Over the years, Quixtar has gone from running its front-end infrastructure on HP ProLiant 1850R 6/500 servers to HP ProLiant DL380s running Windows. On the backend, the firm had two IBM Series p5/570 servers running inventory management applications.

In 2003, the IT team started to plan a new e-commerce site. At first, the group considered using the HP ProLiant 1850, but scotched it for performance reasons. The team then evaluated upgrading the ProLiant DL380 servers to DL380 G4s. Unfortunately, the required number of DL380 G4 servers -- along with power, cabling and whatnot -- would have eaten up too much space. "We were still running some legacy hardware, including large printers," said Kesselring. "We couldn't find space enough to put the other five racks needed to move from DL380s to DL380 G4."

A member of Quixtar's IT team suggested using blade servers, but Kesselring was worried about the risks involved. "It wasn't a well-known technology at the time," he said. He had heard about blades overheating and knew his staff would need additional training.

Two tries, one win
for VMs on blades

Running virtualization on blades has had mixed results for Internet retailer Quixtar Inc., says IT infrastructure manager Steve Kesselring. Performance dropped and server space maxed out quickly when production applications were put into virtual machines (VMs). Instead, Kesselring runs VMware on AMD 64-bit HP DL585 rack servers to handle heavy production loads.

Virtualization has performed admirably, however, in Quixtar's development department, which uses Microsoft Visual Studio extensively.

Maintaining Visual Studio as well as standard corporate desktop applications on a single desktop was time-consuming. Quixtar's IT team evaluated giving each developer two machines and found that to be just as difficult, maintenance-wise. Microsoft's Virtual PC was also a bust. "It didn't buy us a whole lot because we ended up with two operating systems at the desktop which we couldn't manage," said Kesselring.
In the end, Kesselring's team settled on hosting the Visual Studio .NET application suite on VMware virtual machines running on blades. "We can deliver to the developer a standard desktop, running standard software, and they can remotely connect to their own VM for development work."

Evaluations showed that blade servers handily solved the space problem. For one thing, blades don't have the standard bulky and redundant components found on each rack server. Instead, a blade enclosure provides common resources to all blades on a rack. These resources vary by vendor but usually include cabling, power supplies, cooling components and so on.

"Because of the power distribution design, blades required less power and fewer breaker positions in our panels," Kesselring said.

With one chassis serving a rack of blades, cabling is simpler and less space is needed for cables. "If you had 15 devices on a rack, that's at least 30 cables coming out," Kesselring said.

Cabling had slowed down deployments in the past, he said, "because we had to make sure cables were attached correctly and came out of the right side of the rack." Also, messy cabling can cause heating problems by restricting air flow.

Initially, Quixtar brought in 56 HP ProLiant BL20p servers for the e-commerce site project.

Learning to manage blades

The IT team did have to bone up on blades quickly to deploy them and, afterwards, handle management of the servers. For example, blade enclosures and HP's built-in management tools were both plusses, but Quixtar's IT team knew little about them.

"We were fairly early adopters in blades," said Kesselring. "Fortunately, we had a couple of guys who decided that blades were a passion for them." They studied blades and shared their newfound expertise.

Quixtar's team found that the HP management tools facilitate reassigning blades, making Quixtar's server infrastructure much more agile. "Once we brought our skill sets up, our IT people were able to take over a box remotely from their desktops," Kesselring said. His team could do this with previous servers with some add-on tools, but with the blade systems, the capability was built in.

HP's Rapid Deployment Pack (RDP) automated deployment of blades and rack servers. "Prior to using automated rapid deployment, we were doing a lot of manual work with CDs," he said. "As operating systems got bigger and more third-party products were loaded on the machines, it was taking half a day to build a couple of machines." With automated remote deployment, the process takes minutes, not hours.

Provisioning is quicker on blades, too, because there's room to have a few in reserve. Quixtar always has a handful of servers that aren't provisioned sitting in enclosures. "So the server guy doesn't have to go to the data center, box and put them in. He can reprovision from his desk," Kesselring said. "The blades are just waiting to be deployed inside of RDP."

But being able to bring up apps quickly is a double-edged sword. "People don't hesitate to ask for a server for a proof-of-concept app or on a temporary basis," he said. "So, we do a fair amount of reprovisioning." Thankfully, "it's as simple as going to RDP and taking that image that you want to deploy and dropping it on top of the server in the enclosure."

Kesselring is heading a project to make deployment even easier. "With RDP, we're almost to the point of having a complete image of the machine we want to build as an icon on the desktop," he said. Right now, they've attained "an image that gets us to 90% of what needs to be deployed."

The 56 blade servers first deployed in 2003 are still running, but they're not a lonely island in the data center. Today, Quixtar has more than 200 blade servers in its two data centers. Most new systems are HP BL25p blades.

Blades have helped Quixtar's IT team speed up server and application deployments, adjust quickly to changing workloads and, of course, pack more server punch inside those same data center walls.

"When my server guy suggested blades, I was apprehensive," Kesselring said. "Now, I know there's nothing here to be afraid of. They're your standard server in a package that delivers more efficient power consumption and BTU output."

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