hi5 Networks is a popular social media site focused on gaming. After six years of customization, the company’s Java code base and Postgres databases were hard to manage, and the company’s data center was packed with servers. To cut costs and increase efficiency, hi5 dropped Linux and moved the site to the Windows Server 2008 R2 operating system. It used the Hyper-V technology built into Windows Server 2008 to virtualize its data center, consolidating 420 physical servers to 140. This reduced data center costs by a factor of six and gave hi5 more agility in moving the company in new directions. Now, the development staff can deploy new servers in minutes rather than days and has more time to create new gaming services rather than maintaining old code. A big win: outstanding performance on virtual machines under Hyper-V without the expense of so many physical servers.Situation
Founded in 2003, hi5 Networks is among the 20 largest websites in the world and a major destination for young people seeking online social entertainment focused on gaming. Combining a robust social platform with premium content and game mechanics, hi5 delivers a fun, expressive, and interactive entertainment experience to millions of users around the world. Available in more than 50 languages, the hi5 site features localized games and virtual gifts. hi5 is based in San Francisco, California, and has 70 employees.
||By using Hyper-V, we can provide the application services needed to support our new commerce-centric model. We’re far more nimble deploying virtual machines than standing up large racks of servers.
Vice President of Technical Operations, hi5 Networks
Company founders wrote the site on an open-source software foundation, which provided the fastest time-to-market and lowest costs back in 2003. They used Java programming language, Postgres databases, Apache Tomcat 6.0 servlet container, and the Novell SUSE Linux operating system.
Over time, hi5 customized its databases and application code extensively to the point where they grew large and “brittle”—prone to breaking with each new addition. The hi5 development staff spent the majority of its time maintaining the older code base rather than creating new site features. ”We wanted to replace our aging, customized database with a commercial database that could manage growing amounts of data and free us to develop new gaming services,” says Dan Peterson, Vice President of Technical Operations at hi5 Networks.
In addition, in early 2010, the company decided to change its revenue model from one based strictly on advertising, common on social networking sites, to a commerce-based model—selling games and gaming accessories through hi5 Coins. This change required major changes to the site.
At the same time, the hi5 data center was ready for a hardware refresh. By August 2010, the hi5 data center had grown to 420 blade servers and would need to grow further with the move to a commerce-centric revenue model. Hardware was only part of the cost; it was also expensive to manage this sprawling infrastructure. The company used a collection of Linux-based management tools and homegrown scripts that were difficult to use.
To curb server proliferation, hi5 had experimented with Linux-based virtualization solutions, including VMware, but could never achieve the performance levels needed to run its site. The company also lacked a central console for managing virtual machines and had not wanted to invest in the vSphere management tool from VMware unless it knew for sure that it was going to commit to VMware.Solution
In mid-2010, hi5 made the decision to replace Java with the Microsoft .NET Framework, Postgres with Microsoft SQL Server 2008 data management software, and Linux with the Windows Server 2008 R2 operating system. “We felt that the Microsoft .NET Framework would help us in our move toward a commerce-centric revenue model,” says Jon Beckham, Director of Site Operations at hi5 Networks. “With .NET we could achieve much faster development time and do more with less. Things that we were solving on our own with open-source tools were solved out of the box with the .NET Framework. Plus, SQL Server had the security and scalability we needed for commerce. Hyper-V gave us multiplatform support and a cost-effective licensing model. And Microsoft System Center programs provided a way to easily deploy and manage all our servers from one console. Everything about the move to Microsoft was a win for us.”
Although rewriting the hi5 application using the .NET Framework would take time, hi5 knew that it could immediately deploy Windows Server 2008 R2 and run its existing Java-based application in the new environment. So in late 2010, hi5 upgraded its data center hardware and deployed Windows Server 2008 R2 on all new servers.
||With .NET we could achieve much faster development time and do more with less. Things that we were solving on our own … were solved out of the box with the .NET Framework.
Director of Site Operations, hi5 Networks
Specifically, hi5 replaced its 420 Dell 1955 blade servers with 35 Dell PowerEdge C6100 2U servers. These 2U units each contain four servers, for a total of 140 physical servers. Each server runs the Windows Server 2008 R2 Standard operating system and contains three virtual machines, also running Windows Server 2008 R2 Standard. The hardware refresh resulted in 420 virtual machines running on 140 physical servers —only one-third of the hardware required before. Central Management Console
hi5 also replaced its Linux-based management tools with Microsoft System Center data center solutions. The company uses Microsoft System Center Virtual Machine Manager 2008 R2 to create and manage virtual machines using automated templates and wizards. The IT staff uses the program console to centrally manage all physical and virtual assets, monitor server and site performance, troubleshoot problems, and handle all other server management tasks.
“System Center Virtual Machine Manager gives us a central place to administer all our servers, both physical and virtual,” says Aaron Chu, Systems Architect at hi5 Networks. “We finally have a complete, full-featured management product that we can use to take care of everything from one screen.” The hi5 staff also likes the fact that System Center Virtual Machine Manager works well with scripts written in the Windows PowerShell scripting language, which helps staff deploy application servers very quickly.
On top of System Center Virtual Machine Manager, hi5 deployed the Microsoft System Center Virtual Machine Manager Self-Service Portal 2.0, which the company’s developers can use to create, manage, and decommission virtual machines over the web. This portal, a free* solution from Microsoft, provides workflow capabilities that IT staffs can use to let users automatically provision their own virtual machines as needed. It also provides tools for tracking computing resources and charging departments accordingly. “Most of the people in our company are developers,” says Chu. “By using the System Center Virtual Machine Manager Self-Service Portal, they can rapidly provision virtual machines as needed using a web-based interface.”
hi5 has also started using Microsoft Visual Studio 2010 Lab Management, which extends the Visual Studio Application Lifecycle Management platform to Hyper-V environments. Lab Management is connected to System Center Virtual Machine Manager, which hi5 developers can use to create virtualized development and staging environments.
hi5 uses Microsoft System Center Configuration Manager 2007 R2 to deploy software and security updates to its nonvirtualized host servers. It uses Microsoft System Center Operations Manager 2007 R2 to monitor physical and virtual servers. “We have created System Center Operations Manager management packs for our own applications and exposed those through the same console,” Chu says. “We care as much when revenue for a particular product takes a sharp dip as when a server fails, and System Center Operations Manager provides a great platform for integrating all that information in one place.”Licensing Efficiencies
hi5 uses a Microsoft Volume Licensing agreement to license its Microsoft software—specifically, the Microsoft Enrollment for Application Platform, which provides flexible licensing for Microsoft Application Platform technologies.
“The flexibility of Microsoft volume licensing enables us to keep up with company growth and our evolving understanding of the performance and capacity characteristics of the different products,” Peterson says. “The tools on the Volume Licensing site help us manage all of our licenses and subscription-based products. We can also manage our Microsoft TechNet and MSDN subscriptions.”Benefits
By switching from Linux to Windows Server 2008 R2, hi5 was able to virtualize its data center and gain new levels of business responsiveness and efficiency. Its IT staff reaped more time to develop new gaming services, cut data center cost by a factor of six, and achieved unprecedented levels of scalability. Site performance is outstanding running on virtual machines.
Rapid Move to New Business Model
By virtualizing its data center by using Hyper-V, hi5 has gained increased agility in meeting changing business needs. “By using Hyper-V, we can provide the application services needed to support our new commerce-centric model,” Peterson says. “We’re far more nimble deploying virtual machines than standing up large racks of servers.”
||By using System Center resources, our developers can essentially help themselves to servers when they need them, while the IT staff retains control over their configuration, ensuring that they are consistent with our production environment.
Systems Architect, hi5 Networks
A virtualized infrastructure also gives developers far greater visibility into resource availability. “By using System Center resources, our developers can essentially help themselves to servers when they need them, while the IT staff retains control over their configuration, ensuring that they are consistent with our production environment,” says Chu. More Time to Develop New Gaming Services
The virtualized environment at hi5 has dramatically reduced server management time for the IT staff. “It only takes a couple of minutes to build a new virtual machine with Hyper-V,” says Beckham. “Building ten new servers takes a couple of keystrokes. Before, it required hours or days.”
Between the time savings in deploying virtual machines and the efficiencies associated with using the System Center management console, the hi5 data center staff is far more productive. “We don’t have hard metrics on staff time savings, but our IT staff now has more time to focus on product development rather than maintenance,” Peterson says. “We have more resources to build gaming services, which translates into more new features and a better experience for visitors.” Costs Reduced by Factor of Six
By taking advantage of the built-in virtualization capabilities in Windows Server 2008 R2, hi5 was able to reduce its data center costs (hardware, power, and space savings) by a factor of six. “By using Hyper-V, we replaced more than 6 racks of servers with 1.5 racks,” says Peterson. “We’ve also cut our total power usage from 84 kW to 17.5 kW. The power savings alone is worth approximately [U.S.]$195,000 annually, a 40 percent reduction. We’re probably saving $120,000 annually on data center space.”
hi5 also gets far better utilization from its data center hardware. “Because we can more tightly control the resources assigned to individual virtual machines, we can tailor our deployments to give the software stack exactly what it needs and take full advantage of our more powerful hardware,” says John Preston, Senior Software Architect at hi5 Networks. “If we had the same hardware without virtualization, there would be a lot of wasted resources.” Outstanding Performance
hi5 is a pioneer in moving its entire application to Windows Server, because nearly all social networking sites run on Linux. “We are happy to say that we are running our site on Windows Server 2008 R2 with outstanding performance,” Peterson says. “Each of the Hyper-V virtual machines performs just as well as the previous physical blade server it replaced. That’s pretty impressive.”
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Microsoft virtualization is an end-to-end strategy that can profoundly affect nearly every aspect of the IT infrastructure management lifecycle. It can drive greater efficiencies, flexibility, and cost effectiveness throughout your organization. From accelerating application deployments; to ensuring systems, applications, and data are always available; to taking the hassle out of rebuilding and shutting down servers and desktops for testing and development; to reducing risk, slashing costs, and improving the agility of your entire environment—virtualization has the power to transform your infrastructure, from the data center to the desktop.
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