Fasthosts is a fast-growing UK hosting provider that has expanded due to its focus on offering better and more economical services than its competition. To continue to stay in front, Fasthosts is upgrading to Windows Server 2012. It will take
advantage of new features, such as storage migration, Hyper-V Replica, and “shared nothing” live migration, that will simplify data center administration and increase availability. With these improvements, and efficiencies delivered by Microsoft System Center
2012, Fasthosts can boost IT efficiency and business agility. It can reduce operating costs and help customers reduce their costs by offering more feature-rich services. Fasthosts will be able to offer several new services based on Windows Server 2012 capabilities
that will generate new revenues. It can also improve availability by managing customer workloads with more flexibility.
Established in 1998, Fasthosts has grown rapidly to be a leading hosting provider in the United Kingdom. Fasthosts focuses on the mainstream hosting market, selling directly to end customers and also through an extensive partner channel network. Fasthosts
delivers market-leading online services to the home, home office, and small business markets. The company has more than 6,500 dedicated servers and 200 employees. It serves more than 400,000 customers and a network of more than 5,000 reseller partners.
In July 2010, Fasthosts launched a virtual private server offering (dedicated servers running as virtual machines) using the Hyper-V technology in the Windows Server 2008 R2 operating system. Within two years, the company was serving thousands of customers
on an infrastructure of 4,000 virtual machines running on 12 16-node clusters.
||By using Windows Server 2012 and System Center 2012, we should be able to support a 25 percent growth in business without growing our data center staff.
| Jonathon Royle
Chief Technology Officer, Fasthosts
Fasthosts also used Microsoft System Center data center solutions to automate much of the management of the environment. However, Fasthosts still had to manually manage and monitor host server workloads, as it felt that System Center Virtual Machine Manager
2008 R2 was too cautious in virtual machine placement. Also, migrating customers from one cluster to another—to update operating systems and applications or to perform routine maintenance—was laborious and time-consuming, because virtual machines had to be
migrated one at a time and migrating associated storage was difficult.
“We had to live-migrate all customer data before we could take down one host server, update it, and bring it back up,” explains Jonathon Royle, Chief Technology Officer for Fasthosts. “As the business grew, this became a major headache for us. Because of
the time required, we also couldn’t roll out security updates as quickly as we wanted, so we ended up accumulating and applying them in batches, which was not ideal for security. We needed to speed up routine administrative tasks so that we could respond faster
to customers and new business needs.”
Fasthosts also wanted to continuously reduce costs and pass those savings on to customers. To provide secure communications between clusters running workloads for multiple customers, or tenants, Fasthosts had to create virtual local area networks, which
were expensive and had scalability limits. Also, many smaller customers wanted but could not afford a disaster recovery capability.
Migrating workloads also resulted in planned downtime. “Overall availability was not where we wanted it to be, as we advertise 99.99 percent availability,” Royle says.
Because it had thousands of servers running Windows Server 2008 R2, Fasthosts was closely watching its successor, the Windows Server 2012 operating system. “We were really interested to find out what would be in Windows Server 2012, particularly in the
new version of Hyper-V,” says Lee Harrison, Lead Virtualization and Storage Engineer on the Infrastructure Team at Fasthosts. “The more we heard about it, the more excited I became. The new version of Hyper-V offered us the scalability and flexibility that
Fasthosts joined the Microsoft Rapid Deployment Program (RDP) and created a proof-of-concept environment by using a Dell M1000e Blade Chassis populated with Dell PowerEdge M610 blade servers. It used a NetApp FAS6280 storage system and the Cisco Catalyst
4948 switch for server switching within the rack.
“We did a lengthy storage review and the NetApp relationship with Microsoft was key in our decision to select NetApp,” Harrison says. “Good vendor communication is key in resolving support issues.” Fasthosts also worked closely with Microsoft Services Consulting
and its local Microsoft Services Premier Mission Critical contact to explore the many new features in Windows Server 2012. “Our Microsoft Services consultant really knew what he was doing and was very motivated and enthusiastic about the product,” Harrison
says. “He worked closely with our local Microsoft rep and Premier Mission Critical contact, who knew our company and what our platform can do. The combination was perfect.”
Many Features Tested
During the RDP, Fasthosts tested many Windows Server 2012 features and became more excited about the operating system with every feature tested:
Hyper-V storage migration. “A key highlight for me was storage migration,” Harrison says. “It’s a fantastic leap forward. VMware has offered something like this for a while now, and it’s
good to see it in Hyper-V.” Hyper-V storage migration allows for transfer of virtual hard disks to a new location, with no downtime, for upgrading or migrating storage or performing storage maintenance.
Hyper-V live migration. Similar to storage migration, Hyper-V live migration supports simultaneous virtual machine migrations with no downtime, inside and outside of a cluster. “Being able to simultaneously move more virtual machines between
hosts will help with security updating,” Harrison says. “It’s very labor-intensive now.”
“Shared nothing” live migration. “Shared nothing” live migration provides the ability to migrate a virtual machine from one Hyper-V host to another host that isn’t part of the same cluster. The virtual machine shares no storage and has only
a gigabit Ethernet connection to the first virtual machine. “When moving virtual machines from one cluster to another, ‘shared nothing’ live migration is a bonus feature that works well when we need to do a mass migration of virtual machines,” Harrison says.
Hyper-V Replica. The Hyper-V Replica feature provides a virtual machine-level replication solution that helps organizations protect against unplanned downtime. Hyper-V Replica efficiently replicates data over a network link to a remote site
through a highly secure, asynchronous replication of virtual machine data and configuration—without relying on storage arrays or other software replication technologies.
“Someone really thought out this feature,” Harrison says. “It’s a simple and elegant solution for disaster recovery. You can start thinking about cheaper geo-resilience straight away. Previously, you needed stretch clustering to accomplish resilience across
geographical locations, which complicates your network. With Hyper-V Replica, you can have a customer workload running in two data centers and have them always in sync. Anything related to resilience that can be moved from the infrastructure layer into the
application layer is easier to administer.”
Hyper-V over SMB. Hyper-V in Windows Server 2012 introduces a new storage option: support for the Server Message Block 3 (SMB3) protocol. This provides increased flexibility, easier storage provisioning, and reduced system costs compared
to the storage options in Windows Server 2008 R2. “Getting away from iSCSI block-based storage will be a massive benefit,” Harrison says. “iSCSI has been cost-effective in the past, but troubleshooting issues has been a nightmare. Using normal file share servers
will be a great step forward. It will make it much easier to manage and maintain storage.”
NIC Teaming. Network Interface Card (NIC) Teaming provides network fault tolerance on physical servers and virtual machines by using at least two network adapters by any vendor, without the need for a third-party teaming solution. With NIC
Teaming built into the operating system, Fasthosts has a solution that is easier to deploy and manage and is fully supported by Microsoft.
New VHDX format. Currently, Fasthosts offers pass-through disks, which often need to be used as a temporary measure to migrate data for large virtual machines. However, the new virtual hard disk format (VHDX) supports up to 64 terabytes
of virtual hard disk storage, which eliminates the need for pass-through disks and removes an extra layer of complexity.
Current Deployment and Future Plans
Hyper-V capacity improvements. Windows Server 2012 supports host servers with up to 320 logical processors and 4 terabytes of physical RAM, virtual machines with up to 64 virtual processors and 1 terabyte of memory, and clusters with as
many as 64 nodes and 8,000 virtual machines per cluster. With these improvements, Fasthosts can include more virtual machines in each host server and reduce data center real estate and cooling costs.
Fasthosts is running several internal services in production on Windows Server 2012, including Microsoft SharePoint Server 2010, Microsoft Lync Server 2010, and Microsoft Exchange Server 2010. The company is also busy creating a migration plan for other
workloads. At the same time, it is evaluating Microsoft System Center 2012, which will complement Windows Server 2012 and provide more sophisticated management capabilities.
||Someone really thought out [Hyper-V Replica]. It’s a simple and elegant solution for disaster recovery.
| Lee Harrison
Lead Virtualization and Storage Engineer, Infrastructure Team, Fasthosts
“While we have used previous System Center tools, we augmented them with our own tools, which are expensive to maintain,” Royle says. “We’ll be able to replace these homegrown tools with System Center 2012, which will give us lower costs.” Fasthosts is most
interested in the Orchestrator component of Microsoft System Center 2012, which automates IT tasks and will be instrumental in speeding virtual machine deployment. It is also eager to use the Operations Manager component to monitor the entire physical and
virtual environment from one console.
By being an early adopter of Windows Server 2012, Fasthosts can increase IT automation and efficiency and, consequently, business agility and competitiveness. It can also reduce infrastructure costs due to software-based networking capabilities and higher
virtual machine density, and reduce costs for customers by offering services that no longer require third-party solutions. Additionally, Fasthosts can generate new revenues by offering additional services made possible by Windows Server 2012. With the ability
to more flexibly move workloads between clusters, Fasthosts can improve infrastructure availability.
Boost IT Efficiency and Business Agility
By using the improved Hyper-V host and virtual machine density, capacity, and scalability, the Fasthosts staff can concentrate on service improvements rather than on operational tasks, such as deploying new hardware to keep up with the demands of a growing
business. It can also scale its environment faster to accommodate customer demand.
“We are still evaluating the savings in a production environment, but I am confident that we will lower the cost to manage our platform, and we will have fewer custom management tools to maintain,” Royle says. “By using Windows Server 2012 and System Center
2012, we should be able to support a 25 percent growth in business without growing our data center staff.”
The company can also potentially decrease server costs. “At the moment, most of our servers are over-provisioned, so we have more capacity than is ideal,” Royle says. “If we can move customers around shared pools of storage and compute resources, we can
reduce our hardware costs.”
||With the many new features in Windows server 2012, we can create richer services that generate revenue. There’s a real opportunity to ‘productize’ the Hyper-V Replica feature, for example, to offer a ‘replication as a service’ offering.
| Jonathon Royle
Chief Technology Officer, Fasthosts
Less focus on infrastructure means more focus on the needs of the business. Fasthosts now has a more elastic infrastructure that it can use to respond quickly to spikes in demand. “Having this kind of flexibility saves money, as we often don’t know what resources
we will need from day to day,” Harrison says. “Our customer base is fluctuating all the time. There are times when we need to move customer workloads around our infrastructure and features like storage migration will let us make these moves on the fly. We
won’t have to spend time planning and contacting customers.”
Reduce Costs Internally and for Customers
By using Windows Server 2012 networking enhancements, Fasthosts can segregate its networking infrastructure in software rather than in hardware. “We hope that we can have fewer but larger networking connections to a host server and use the NIC Teaming
capability to allocate bandwidth more dynamically,” Harrison says. “That’s a big plus for us.”
Fasthosts can also decrease costs for its customers by using Hyper-V Replica. The capability included in Windows Server 2012 allows Fasthosts to offer a simple and cost-effective option to customers who are looking for greater resiliency above and beyond
high availability for geographic disaster recovery.
Create New Revenue Opportunities
In addition to offering customers their existing services at a lower cost, Fasthosts can use Windows Server 2012 to offer completely new services. “It’s key to have innovative solutions that entice our customers to continue hosting with us,” Royle says.
“We’ve made it very easy for customers to move in and out of our data center, which is a competitive advantage. But we’d naturally like for them to stay with us because we have services that they can’t get anywhere else or as economically. With the many new
features in Windows Server 2012, we can create richer services that generate revenue. There’s a real opportunity to ‘productize’ the Hyper-V Replica feature, for example, to offer a ‘replication as a service’ offering. Many of our smaller customers don’t have
a disaster recovery capability. We can address this concern with Hyper-V Replica.”
In 2011, a large Fasthosts partner requested geo-resilience between several clusters. Fasthosts looked into how it could deliver the solution, but it quickly became complex and costly. “The whole offering died when we got to cost,” Royle says. “The cost
exceeded what the partner was expecting and what it could sell in its market. If we had Hyper-V Replica, we could have met this customer’s technical and price needs.”
Another example: Fasthosts can offer customers larger storage options by using the VHDX file format in Hyper-V. Many customers ask for more than the 2 terabytes of storage that Fasthosts includes but do not want to move to an expensive, dedicated storage
area network. Fasthosts can now give these customers less expensive storage by using the features built into the operating system.
Fasthosts can also increase availability with the ability to move virtual machines and storage without incurring downtime. Previously, if a storage system became overloaded, the data center team struggled to quickly move workloads before customers experienced
downtime. With Windows Server 2012, Fasthosts has the flexibility to move workloads around faster and more transparently.
“There are so many features in Windows Server 2012,” Royle says. “We have yet to discover all that it can do for our business.”
Windows Server 2012
Windows Server drives many of the world’s largest data centers, empowers small businesses around the world, and delivers value to organizations of all sizes in between. Building on this legacy, Windows Server 2012 redefines the category, delivering hundreds
of new features and enhancements that span virtualization, networking, storage, user experience, cloud computing, automation, and more. Simply put, Windows Server 2012 helps you transform your IT operations to reduce costs and deliver a whole new level of
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