4-page Case Study
Posted: 10/27/2011
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Florida Atlantic University University Runs Linux-based Blackboard on Hyper-V While Trimming Costs by $600,000

When Florida Atlantic University (FAU) hit its third round of state-level budget cuts, it knew that it had to fundamentally change the way it delivered IT services. Servers were consuming valuable funds and data center space, yet the staff needed to replace older hardware and boost the performance of its critical Blackboard curriculum management application. The only way to accomplish all this was to use virtualization, which FAU implemented by using Hyper-V technology in the Windows Server 2008 R2 Enterprise operating system with Service Pack 1. By using Linux Integration Services for Hyper-V, FAU is able to run Blackboard on the Linux operating system and improve performance. It has also been able to reduce costs by U.S.$600,000, expand services with no increase in staff, and improve the availability of IT services and thus the user computing experience.

Situation
Florida Atlantic University (FAU) opened its doors in 1964 as the first public university in southeastern Florida. Less than 50 years later, FAU serves more than 29,000 freshmen, transfers, and graduate students from a main campus in Boca Raton and six other campuses across southern Florida. Students choose from more than 170 degree programs, faculty researchers use more than 40 research centers, and the university offers hundreds of cultural and educational events every year.

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* With the VMware pricing structure, it’s almost as cheap to buy another physical server as it is to pay for additional virtual machine licenses. *

Rhian Resnick
Assistant Director of Enterprise Computing Services, Middleware Strategies, Florida Atlantic University

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Similar to nearly every other public institution in the United States, FAU has endured repeated budget reductions since 2008. The school has been growing at 5 to 7 percent annually, as has the demand for IT services, yet the IT department did not have the funds to continue deploying physical servers. By 2008, its main data center in Boca Raton was nearly at capacity with 137 servers. These servers included both Oracle (Sun) servers running the Sun Solaris operating system and Dell servers running the Windows Server operating system.

The IT staff, headed by Mehran Basiratmand, Director of Enterprise Computing Services and Chief Technical Officer, wanted to replace older servers and standardize the IT environment. The IT staff also wanted to boost the performance of the school’s critical curriculum management system from Blackboard, used by professors to communicate with students, by moving it off outdated Oracle servers onto Intel processor–based servers. However, all these improvements required money that the school did not have. “When I arrived in May 2009, we were on our third round of budget cuts,” says Jason Ball, Associate Vice President and Chief Information Officer. “We had to use our hardware more efficiently and buy less of it.”

In late 2009, the IT staff began using the free VMware ESXi virtualization software to experiment with server virtualization. It created 12 VMware ESXi hosts, each running up to eight virtual machines. “Although we were able to consolidate servers, the VMware environment soon grew out of control,” says Rhian Resnick, Assistant Director of Enterprise Computing Services, Middleware Strategies, at Florida Atlantic University. “We didn’t have tools for managing this virtualized environment, so each virtual machine had to be managed independently as if it were a physical server. This kind of defeated the purpose and required staff resources that we just didn’t have.”

FAU considered upgrading to the full VMware ESX product to gain the management tools it needed, but the licensing costs were prohibitive. “With the VMware pricing structure, it’s almost as cheap to buy another physical server as it is to pay for additional virtual machine licenses,” Resnick says.

Solution
In early 2010, FAU upgraded to Blackboard version 9.1 with Service Pack 6, which was designed to run in a virtualized environment, and moved the application from Oracle servers and Sun Solaris to HP and Dell servers running the Linux operating system. Intel processor–based servers provided greater flexibility, scalability, and more virtualization options for Blackboard growth. Linux was the operating system recommended by Blackboard. Now, FAU just needed to find the perfect virtualization software.

Game-Changing Linux Services
Brandon Land, Systems Specialist in Enterprise Computing Services, Middleware Strategies, at Florida Atlantic University, was familiar with the Hyper-V virtualization technology included in the Windows Server 2008 R2 operating system and insisted that it could meet the university’s needs. “Windows Server 2008 R2 with Service Pack 1 was the game changer for us,” Land says. “It provided great Linux support. During six to eight weeks of testing, we tried to kick holes in Hyper-V and couldn’t.”

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* Windows Server 2008 R2 with Service Pack 1 was the game changer for us. It provided great Linux support. *

Brandon Land
Systems Specialist, Enterprise Computing Services, Middleware Strategies, Florida Atlantic University

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Land is referring to Linux Integration Services for Hyper-V, included with Windows Server 2008 R2 with Service Pack 1 (SP1), which provides improved performance and control of Linux-based virtual machines. Linux Integration Services runs inside virtual machines on a supported Linux operating system and gives Linux access to the hypervisor.

Twenty-Four Hosts with Room to Grow
In March 2010, FAU deployed Windows Server 2008 R2 Enterprise with SP1 on 24 Hyper-V production hosts, six of which are used for test. The IT staff has created 149 virtual machines to date on these hosts but figures it has room to double capacity. “We have four to five virtual machines per server with room to grow to 10 or 12 as needed,” Basiratmand says.

FAU is not only running Blackboard in a virtualized Linux environment by using Hyper-V (on HP ProLiant servers); it is also running Microsoft SharePoint Server 2010, Microsoft Exchange Server 2010, Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP) services, Domain Name System (DNS) services, Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP) services, identity management and, soon, databases running Microsoft SQL Server data management software on Hyper-V virtual machines running Windows Server 2008 R2.

“A key advantage of virtualizing with Hyper-V has been the ability to run Windows Server 2008 or Linux in our virtualized environment. Another is the ability to distribute many of our IT services, such as user authentication and DNS, to remote campus locations for better performance, while still managing them centrally,” Basiratmand says.

FAU has purchased a NetApp storage area network so that it can cluster its production hosts to take advantage of the live migration feature in Windows Server 2008 R2. This feature enables the IT staff to migrate active workload between virtual machines, thereby providing high availability for critical applications such as Blackboard.

Centralized, Automated Management
FAU is using Microsoft System Center data center solutions to manage its physical and virtual environment. By acquiring a Microsoft System Center Server Management Suite Datacenter license, the university is able to cost-effectively license Microsoft System Center Virtual Machine Manager 2008 R2 with SP1 and Microsoft System Center Operations Manager 2007 R2. (The license also includes access to additional System Center programs that FAU is not currently using.)

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* The combination of innovative products, low costs, and performance make Microsoft the best environment for cloud computing. *

Mehran Basiratmand
Director of Enterprise Computing Services and Chief Technical Officer, Florida Atlantic University

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The IT staff uses System Center Virtual Machine Manager to quickly create virtual machines from templates and to manage both virtual machines and physical hosts. The program includes a feature called Performance and Resource Optimization (PRO) that dynamically detects failed or poorly performing virtualized hardware, operating systems, or applications. When used in conjunction with System Center Operations Manager, PRO tips alert FAU staff to an unhealthy application and recommend corrective action or automatically shift workloads to a healthy virtual machine.

“We use PRO tips to automatically balance our server workloads and keep our entire environment operating at peak performance,” Resnick says. “Provisioning virtual machines is incredibly easy with System Center Virtual Machine Manager; we can store templates and spin up a virtual machine in minutes.”

Additionally, performing maintenance on physical servers is much easier in a Hyper-V environment. The IT staff can turn off physical servers, insert memory, or perform other maintenance tasks, and the Hyper-V virtual machines are automatically paused.

FAU is working toward creating a private cloud—a virtualized pool of computing resources that departments on campus can access to self-provision virtual machines on demand through a web-based portal. “We are waiting to deploy System Center Virtual Machine Manager 2012 before we implement this, because it will provide additional self-service capabilities such as capacity on demand and easier migration between virtual environments,” Basiratmand says. “The combination of innovative products, low costs, and performance make Microsoft the best environment for cloud computing.”

Benefits
By virtualizing its data center using Hyper-V, Florida Atlantic University has been able to trim IT costs by at least U.S.$600,000 and deliver new IT services without expanding its staff. Plus, it’s able to run Blackboard on Linux in the Hyper-V environment, simplifying administration and delivering increased performance. By distributing computing power across campus locations and adding virtual machines on demand, the university can deliver higher availability of IT services and give students and staff a better computing experience.

Initial Savings of $600,000
The savings begin with far lower server acquisition costs. “We’re saving money on server acquisition—with 149 virtual machines created so far, that’s 149 servers we haven’t had to buy at $5,000 each, or more than a $500,000 savings,” Basiratmand says.

However, FAU has also reduced server maintenance costs by $100,000 over the past year by retiring Sun servers. It anticipates that it will realize still more savings by replacing four racks of Sun servers with Dell servers. “With the increased budget pressure in the State of Florida, Hyper-V gives us additional growing and saving room,” Ball says.

Additionally, FAU has benefited from its Microsoft Campus Agreement, which it’s had since 1999. The Campus Agreement provides FAU with a way to distribute key Microsoft productivity tools to faculty and staff without charging individual departments, thus providing additional savings for departments on campus by using a centralized licensing model.

New Services with No Growth in Staff
FAU has also found that its virtualized environment is far easier to manage than an all-physical IT environment. New virtual machines can be deployed to any campus location in minutes from a central console rather than having to requisition physical servers and send staff around the state to set them up. “In the past two years, we have added close to 40 new IT application services without adding any additional staff; in fact, our staff has shrunk,” Basiratmand says. “This efficiency is directly attributable to our virtualized environment.”

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* Blackboard is running faster on Intel processor–based servers and Hyper-V than it did on Sun hardware and VMware…. Our Linux virtual machines run better and scale better on Hyper-V. *

Mehran Basiratmand
Director of Enterprise Computing Services and Chief Technical Officer, Florida Atlantic University

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Additionally, using System Center solutions to manage the environment has greatly reduced the time needed to resolve hardware issues. “By using System Center Virtual Machine Manager and System Center Operations Manager, we are able to put a failing virtual host into maintenance mode with a few mouse-clicks, and then watch as all of the guest virtual machines migrate to other host servers,” Resnick says. “This gives us the opportunity to address the hardware issue on our own time without interrupting service to our users.”

The automatic virtual machine pause capability in Hyper-V is another big timesaver. “When we perform maintenance on Hyper-V hosts and bring paused virtual machines back online, the virtual machines simply resume running,” Ball says. “With VMware, we had to manually pause each virtual machine individually and wait for it to write its contents to the server hard drive, which took several hours, depending of the amount of data. We have a very small maintenance window, so time is of the essence. System Center has contributed greatly to how quickly we can deliver maintenance services.”

Improved Performance of Blackboard
Not only is FAU saving money but it’s getting better performance with its Hyper-V environment. “Blackboard is running faster on Intel processor–based servers and Hyper-V than it did on Sun hardware and VMware. This has provided better response for our user community,” Basiratmand says.

“Hyper-V is better in cost and performance than VMware ESX when managing non-Windows workloads. Our Linux virtual machines run better and scale better on Hyper-V. Plus, we can easily add additional virtual machines if needed. That’s the beauty of virtualization. If we hit a peak time, we can add horsepower in minutes; we didn’t have that before. It’s given us a new definition of capacity on demand.”

FAU has collected performance data on Blackboard running in both Sun-VMware and HP-Hyper-V environments and found, for example, that logging on to the application is 0.5 seconds faster with Hyper-V. “This doesn’t sound like a big improvement, but when you multiply that time by thousands of users, it’s huge,” Ball says. “This time savings will only grow more important as more professors use Blackboard.”

Better performance of key applications such as Blackboard means fewer user complaints and help-desk calls. “By moving Blackboard from Sun hardware to a Hyper-V environment on HP servers, we were able to reduce the number of support tickets from 166 to 96, a 43 percent improvement,” Land says. “The great reduction in Blackboard issues can be attributed to the increased speed and stability gained by moving the application to Hyper-V on Intel processor–based hardware.”

Higher Availability of IT Services Leads to Higher User Satisfaction
By using Hyper-V, FAU has been able to cost-effectively distribute administrative services such as Active Directory, DNS, DHCP, and identity management to remote campus locations so that users have local processing power and a better experience for routine activities such as logging on to the network.

“We can create smaller virtual machines and spread them across multiple locations to improve performance and to provide high availability,” Basiratmand says. “If one virtual machine or application instance breaks, we have it running elsewhere. If we lose an application server running network registration, we have others running this service all over the state. Other campus locations are not dependent on the Boca Raton data center being available; we have redundancy and resilience across our environment.”

For example, FAU created a new device registration system that allows students and staff to register both wired and wireless devices by simply logging on to the campus network. This application runs on Hyper-V virtual machines that run locally on each FAU campus. This architecture delivers both performance and capacity planning benefits. “We can spin up virtual machines as needed to handle capacity as usage rises or falls around the state,” Resnick says. “Instead of having to install three physical servers at each campus, we have one running multiple virtual machines. It’s better from cost, security, performance, and availability perspectives. Plus, we can put more services on each server than just network registration.”

Basiratmand adds, “Virtualizing with Hyper-V on our Dell platform has given us better reliability and resilience of IT services, better performance for key applications such as Blackboard, seamless authentication across all kinds of devices, and lower costs. All these benefits enable us to better support our users and improves the image of the IT staff.”

Microsoft Cloud Power
Microsoft offers a complete set of cloud-based solutions to meet business needs, including solutions for advertising; communications (email, meetings); collaboration (document storage, sharing, workflow); business applications (customer resource management, business productivity); data storage and management; and infrastructure services. In addition, customers can take advantage of an entire ecosystem of solution providers and Microsoft partners.

For more information about Microsoft Cloud Power, go to:
www.microsoft.com/cloud

For More Information
For more information about Microsoft products and services, call the Microsoft Sales Information Center at (800) 426-9400. In Canada, call the Microsoft Canada Information Centre at (877) 568-2495. Customers in the United States and Canada who are deaf or hard-of-hearing can reach Microsoft text telephone (TTY/TDD) services at (800) 892-5234. Outside the 50 United States and Canada, please contact your local Microsoft subsidiary. To access information using the World Wide Web, go to:
www.microsoft.com

For more information about Florida Atlantic University services, call (561) 297-3000 or visit the website at:
http://fau.edu  

Solution Overview



Organization Size: 3500 employees

Organization Profile

Florida Atlantic University (FAU) serves more than 29,000 students on seven campuses in southeastern Florida. The FAU staff of 3,500 offers more than 170 degree programs.


Business Situation

FAU faced severe budget reductions and needed to trim IT costs. It needed an affordable virtualization solution and to improve the performance and availability of key applications.


Solution

The IT staff switched from VMware to Windows Server 2008 R2 with Service Pack 1 and moved its Blackboard curriculum management application to the Linux operating system running on Hyper-V technology.


Benefits

  • Initial savings of U.S.$600,000
  • New services with no staff increases
  • Improved Blackboard performance


Hardware
  • 14 Dell PowerEdge R710 servers
  • 8 HP ProLiant blade servers
  • Dell blade chassis with two active blades

Software and Services
  • Windows Server 2008 R2 Service Pack 1
  • Windows Server 2008 R2 Enterprise
  • Microsoft System Center Configuration Manager 2007 R2
  • Microsoft System Center Virtual Machine Manager 2008 R2
  • Microsoft System Center Operations Manager 2007 R2
  • Microsoft Hyper-V

Vertical Industries
Higher Education

Country/Region
United States

Business Need
  • Cost Containment
  • Cloud & Server Platform

IT Issue
  • Virtualization
  • Private Cloud

Languages
English

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