Friday, 26 November 2010

V for Virtual

For some time now, we have been looking at a project to implement virtualisation. I decided that this would make for some interesting blog entries, and I thought that I might focus on this for a while.

First of all, I suppose that I should go right back to the beginning to explain some of the reasons behind the decision. When I first joined the company, the servers were mostly tower models, that were stood on a table in a small room. These devices had limited processing power, low memory and disk storage even by the standards of the day, and were not really up to the task required of them. It should be said that they were most definitely not cheap, but certainly could not be described as being good value for money.

It was identified that we needed to buy some newer machines to replace this old equipment and as a matter of some priority in order to provide urgently needed resources. As part of the project, it was agreed that we would move to rack mounted equipment; this made far better use of the available floor space, we could get a lot more in the same area. The equipment was not totally top of the range, but was very good quality, a good specification and thanks to some quite keen negotiation (though I say it myself) was pretty good value for the money.

This made a huge difference to operations. Within a short time, staff could see significant improvements in speed of operation, we had much better storage facilities, and it was all much more flexible. This all helped demonstrate that the investment was appropriate; and I was also able to confirm some of the benefits using some standard metrics.

But that was some 5 years ago. That same equipment is still functioning, and thanks to some upgrades is still providing a good level of service. However, it has been identified that across the estate, much of the processing power is underutilised. Although some machines made full use of their memory, more than half do not. We have a couple of servers with disks getting quite full, but the rest are using less than a quarter of the available space. The most obvious excess is in the network cards; generally, they are using less than 5% of the available capacity.

It was also identified that the specific servers were manufactured before the newer energy saving devices now available; they use quite a lot of electric power, both to operate and to cool. We ran some tests and found that they would operate just as well at a warmer temperature than had previously been used, and this helped to reduce the need for cooling, so it did save some electricity, but we felt that it should be possible to do better.

Of course, it was also identified that with equipment getting 5 years old, there was an increasing chance that we would see some hardware failure. This was the main concern for me; it seems foolish to be miserly with spending on hardware, when a failure could cause huge losses to the business due to loss of data or operational capacity.

After identifying the need for replacement equipment, we started to look at newer versions of the same hardware; this had a number of green options for power saving, but I was still concerned that we would be paying for extra capacity that never got used, even allowing for growth within the business.

Like a lot of people, I'd heard about virtualisation, but wasn't sure if it would really work for us. I was offered the chance to see some Dell kit in action, along with the Equalogic SAN units. These were really impressive, and gave a lot of options. I also compared these to some HP hardware with StorageWorks; these looked a little better if also a bit more expensive.

The next step was to consider what virtualisation software to use. I had some spare hardware and installed evaluation copies of both Hyper-V and VMWare. I also took the opportunity to see some Citrix systems in action. It wasn't really possible to do as a full a test as I would have liked due to pressure of work, but it soon became clear that the decision would come down between Hyper-V and VMware. I liked both and felt that either could do a really good job; it was just a case of which we felt we would be happier with in the long run.

At this stage, I managed to get some basic technical books for the two software products; I had hoped that this would help to make the decision a bit easier, but unfortunately, it didn't really help at all. In the end, I decided that we would go with VMWare; the product looked a bit more polished, it's been around longer and is more mature.

So at that point, I started to do some negotiation with the suppliers. This went on for a while, and yes, I played them off against each other. But ultimately, I managed to get a deal that I thought was worthwhile, that the supplier was happy with and that I could sell to the senior managers. There was a slight delay getting the stuff onsite, but it's all here now, and we are starting to install it; but that's going to be the topic for another occasion.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Bookworm part 2

Just a (fairly) brief addendum to my previous post about the Amazon Kindle. I've taken a weeks holiday (I had a very nice time, thank you) and I made realy good use of the Kindle whilst I was away.

I'd ordered and downloaded a number of books beforehand; a bit of a mixture, some thriller, some technical stuff, some historical and some classics. I should note that all of these were free!

I'm not a sunbathing freak; I will do a bit of lying around, but generally get pretty bored after a while. I mostly used the Kindle in the evenings, after supper and just before going off to bed. However, there were a couple of occasions when I sat out on the balcony to catch some rays and used the Kindle to occupy my mind.

The screen is really easy to read even in bright sunlight (and it was bright) and the text is really clear. Changing pages is really simple; the buttons are on each side and have a nice solid feel to them. Changing books is not too difficult; but I do feel that the square button with ring for the selection and entry functions is a bit less solid.

If I had tried to take the same books with me in paper format, I would have required a much larger suitcase; stood on top of one another, they would have been at least 35-40 centimetres in height (14-15 inches in old money).

There is no doubt in my mind, the Kindle is a great little toy. If I didn't have one, I would say that it would be top of my wish list. I would say thought that I would advise getting a proper cover for it; I got a rather nice black leather one, but there are others in different colours and patterns. But each to his (or her) own.

I haven't seen the Sony e-reader, so can't compare it; but I have shown my device to some others who seem to think that they prefer the Kindle. (But that's just their opinion.)

At some stage, I think that I will subscribe to a magazine as well, and I'll do a write up to confirm how I get on.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Springboard Tour 2010

It's been a pretty busy weekend. I went up to Wembley to watch the NFL and stayed overnight so that I could get to Reading early on Monday morning to visit the Microsoft campus for the UK leg of the Technet Springboard Tour. This event was the only one in this country; the others are in major cities across Europe.

The Springboard tour is about promoting the latest technology and providing opportunities for people to see the products in use. They also covered some of the reasons for migrating to the latest versions and highlighted tools and resources that can be used to make the process a lot easier.

I really like visiting the Microsoft Campus; there is always an energy and a buzz about the place that just makes you feel that it is great to work in technology. I believe that all too often, those of us at the sharp end get very isolated and develop a silo mentality to the work we do. It's important to take the chance to get out to see other people and understand that we are all part of a much larger community, that there are others that have exactly the same kind of problems and that there is more than one way of tackling the issues that we face.

The presentations were introduced by Stephen Rose - and I have a link to a video that he made a while ago. He says that he had drunk about 2 gallons of coffee before the filming and I can believe it!

During the presentations, they made really good use of the demos to show just how you might improve the rollout and migration process. The tools provided are all available through the Technet site and many are improved versions of things that are already in use. There was someone with a video camera filming the event, so some of these may be added to the main site (link above) in addition to the preprepared videos.

Unfortunately, the sessions slightly overran - and there were a number of people that had to leave early, missing the final demo. This was of the Diagnostic and Recovery Toolset (DART). I'd very briefly heard of this before, but hadn't really had the chance to work with it. It looks like a really valuable asset for anyone providing any level of support to end users, and in particular anyone providing support for fatal errors. We will definitely be downloading it to give it a try in the next few weeks.

There was a bonus for those that attended; a free copy of Office 2010! There were also a few other little giveaways and prizes just to say thanks for being there. If you missed it, then you would have to go to one of the events on the continent, as there won't be another one in the UK. However, the presentations and information on the resources are on the Springboard site and I would recommend that you take the time to check it out.

As you may gather, I found the whole day a very good use of my time and really enjoyed the chance to talk to the various people. I am sure that I will be making really good use of the information that I picked up there in my daily work over the next few weeks.