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HP blades and VMware spell salvation for Catholic Charities

Despite the $1 million price tag, Catholic Charities of Boston has no regrets about updating its data center with Hewlett-Packard blade servers and VMware virtualization.

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Over the past year, Catholic Charities of Boston has transformed its data center at 75 Kneeland Street from a hodgepodge of mismatched beige server boxes on bakers' racks to a bladed, virtualized infrastructure.

Catholic Charities offers some 140 programs and services in 40 locations throughout eastern Massachusetts. To operate the technology associated with these servers, the organization has an IT staff of eight who manage a jumbled mix of Hewlett-Packard Co. and Compaq servers.

We support 40 different sites and had to be sure everything would work for us on the new systems before putting both feet in.
CIO David Walsh,
Catholic Charities of Boston

Catholic Charities' outmoded, hand-me-down tower and rack servers were difficult to manage, had almost no power redundancy and were totally power inefficient, said Eric Johnson, Catholic Charities IT project manager.

Never mind the cooling, because there was none. Unless you count opening windows and using oscillating floor fans on the high setting to circulate the air.

With network servers at only the largest sites but also with employees scattered at the organization's 40 locations, employees didn't have access to files stored at the Hub site. There was an urgent need to centralize IT operations and provide consistent access on a highly available system.

The IT staff had no experience with a storage area network (SAN), so all data was previously stored separately on individual servers, only complicating disaster recovery measures. With the addition of a SAN, new blade servers and a uniform infrastructure, Catholic Charities can now make good on the disaster recovery mandates of its state contracts.

Getting inspiration
Two years ago, the IT staff thrashed out a plan to update the organization's infrastructure and began by investigating alternate technologies. The $39 million social services organization worked with its OEM partner CBE Technologies in Boston and visited CBE's data center for ideas.

For its part, CBE had recently bladed its data center infrastructure using HP BladeSystem servers, and Catholic Charities decided to follow suit.

According to recent data, HP currently leads the blade server market segment. This past quarter, HP had the most significant increase of any vendor, shipping 73% more blade servers than it did during the same quarter last year, according to an August Gartner Worldwide Server Shipments report.

No leap of faith
Before committing to blade servers and approaching the charity organization's CFO with a $1 million request, the IT staff tested a couple blades. "We support 40 different sites and had to be sure everything would work for us on the new systems before putting both feet in," said David Walsh, Catholic Charities CIO.

After a few months, the results were impressive enough for the charity organization to invest in 25 HP Intel dual-core processor blades and two 16-unit blade racks. The servers now run Microsoft Windows and Linux. They use Integrated Lights-Out 2 (iLO) management software, which comes standard in HP blades, to remotely manage the servers.

They also deployed 50 virtual machines on five of the physical servers using VMware Inc. to save on power and space. Despite the cautious, experimental deployment, IT nonetheless managed to finish in two days, Johnson said.

"[Virtualizing] was actually one of the easiest things I've ever had to do," Johnson said.

Over the next year, Catholic Charities' data center will relocate to a new building in nearby Braintree, Mass., so the infrastructure also had to be mobile. IT added four movable Amcor air conditioning units to the room and kept all the oscillating fans.

The price tag
With the purchase of some 25 servers, a SAN, the American Power Conversion Corp. (APC) uninterruptible power supply, new networking and switching equipment from Cisco Systems Inc., thin clients and monitors, as well as payment of various consulting fees, Catholic Charities estimates that it spent about $1.2 million to update its data center.

Because of the new air conditioning features in the data center, Catholic Charities is actually using more power than it did prior to the upgrade, though no pre-conversion load measurements were made, Johnson said.

Despite the increased power costs, Catholic Charities has drastically increased the amount of technology services it can provide to its 850 employees, Johnson said. The servers run some 30 different business applications, including accounting and fundraising databases, email, and Web services.

On the desktop side, once Catholic Charities fully migrates 500 desktops with CRT monitors to thin clients with LCDs, the organization expects to save more than $60,000 a year in direct electrical costs. This is based on estimated electricity savings of $126.25 per computer annually and does not include potential heating, ventilation, and air conditioning savings, Johnson said.

Catholic Charities also migrated its old DOS-based applications onto a central server and deployed ProCare software, a management tool from Professional Solutions. The previous process required users to send all their data to the main office so it could be aggregated onto a database, which employees didn't have access to. Now all the data is stored on a central server using Citrix Systems Inc. software, and users in remote locations can access it.

Managing the infrastructure is a breeze now, Johnson said. "The difference," he said, "is absolutely amazing."

Let us know what you think about the story; email Bridget Botelho, News Writer.

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