4-page Case Study
Posted: 3/21/2012
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Apartments.com Housing Service Delivers New Features Faster with Hyper-V-based Cloud Solution

Apartments.com is a national online apartment search service. To stay competitive, it needs to roll out new services quickly and deliver outstanding performance for approximately 6 million visitors a month. To do both, it needed a more dynamic IT infrastructure. Apartments.com replaced VMware with Hyper-V virtualization technology in Windows Server 2008 R2 and is using Microsoft System Center 2012 to create a private cloud environment. Developers can obtain needed servers 50 percent faster, which speeds the delivery of new site features. Apartments.com can also scale performance automatically to ensure a great visitor experience. By switching to Hyper-V, Apartments.com reduced its hypervisor licensing costs by 75 percent and now makes better use of server hardware. Also, the company needs about 20 percent fewer IT administrators, who can spend their time adding more value to the business.

Situation
Apartments.com is a national online resource for renters who are looking for an apartment, in addition to an advertising destination for property management companies and private landlords. Apartments.com is based in Chicago, Illinois, and employs a workforce of about 250 people. It is a wholly owned subsidiary of Classified Ventures, which also operates the online classified websites Cars.com and HomeGain.com.

The online housing market is booming—and continuously changing. To stay competitive, Apartments.com has to introduce a steady stream of innovative new features and services and get them to market before the competition.

The company also has to provide plenty of processing power to web, database, and application servers so that visitors have a great experience on the site. However, deploying new servers in all areas of the business—development, test, and production—took several days, which could impact both the pace of development and site performance.

Apartments.com was an early adopter of server virtualization software and began to deploy VMware in 2007. However, the company focused its virtualization efforts in development and test, because it was not ready to entrust its production workloads to virtualization. Also, it found VMware licensing costs to be high. Expanding the software to hundreds of servers would have presented significant licensing costs.

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* We have a long list of items on our product roadmap. By using Hyper-V and System Center, we have a better chance of getting them up and running before our competition. *

Pat Anderson
Chief Technology Officer, Apartments.com

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Apartments.com was able to achieve significant server consolidation with VMware, but as the online housing market became even more competitive, management realized that the company needed to go further than virtualization; it needed a more dynamic and responsive IT infrastructure. “Even with our newly consolidated infrastructure, we didn’t have the tools needed to create an automated, self-service environment that would let us deliver test and development systems to developers faster,” says Matt Stratton, Director of Technology Operations at Apartments.com. “The management tools from VMware were challenging to implement, and our pace of server deployment and reconfiguration plateaued.”

The IT staff also wanted better tools for monitoring server performance and preemptively detecting server health issues. When a server approached about 70 percent capacity, the staff ordered more hardware to ensure that servers were never overloaded and would never fail. This approach led to expensive over-provisioning and underutilization of servers.

In addition, the online housing business is cyclic, which also encouraged server over-buying. “More people are looking for apartments in June than in December. We ended up adding servers during peak months and having those servers sit idle the rest of the year,” Stratton says. “We needed an environment that let us adjust resources to demand and get better value from our hardware investments year round.”

Also, management at Apartments.com challenged the IT department to make wise software investments. “I had to explain to my boss why we were paying for Windows Server 2008 R2 Datacenter licenses and VMware on top of that,” he says.

Solution
In May 2011, Apartments.com launched a proof of concept of the Hyper-V virtualization technology that is included in the Windows Server 2008 R2 operating system. Not only would the company realize cost savings by replacing VMware with Hyper-V, but Apartments.com already had an excellent relationship with Microsoft and used Microsoft software throughout its data center for building, maintaining, and hosting its products.

“We knew Windows well and already used Microsoft System Center to monitor and manage our data center environment,” Stratton says. “Also, the development tools that we used, such as Microsoft Visual Studio 2010 Lab Management, worked much better with Hyper-V than with VMware. We knew that we wanted to move from pure virtualization to a cloud environment, and we wanted to make sure we had a platform and a vendor that would provide us with the support we needed.”

Cloud computing refers to the pooling of virtualized compute and storage resources into a single computing “fabric” that is dynamically and automatically reconfigurable on demand. A private cloud environment is one that is dedicated to a single organization’s use, in contrast to the shared—or multitenant—nature of a public cloud environment.

Apartments.com was also very interested in the efficiencies introduced in Microsoft System Center 2012—Microsoft Server Application Virtualization (Server App-V) in particular. “Refreshing server applications consumes a great deal of time for us,” Stratton says. “We have weekly application refreshes for up to a dozen different environments. Being able to virtualize applications would make those refreshes a one-click operation.” Stratton and his colleagues also looked forward to exploring the many process automation capabilities of System Center 2012.

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* We needed an environment that let us adjust resources to demand and get better value from our hardware investments year round. *

Matt Stratton
Director, Technology Operations, Apartments.com

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Successful Proof of Concept
Apartments.com first wanted to make sure that the performance and functionality of Hyper-V were equal to, if not better than, that of VMware. “Many of our engineers were against Hyper-V when we began and had a lot of questions,” Stratton says. “We couldn’t just tell them that it would save the company money, because they were more concerned with performance and stability. The local Microsoft account team walked our engineers through technical ‘deep dives’ around current and future capabilities, and our staff came out of the proof of concept feeling really good about Hyper-V.”

Apartments.com began to migrate its several hundred VMware virtual machines to Hyper-V in December 2011 and finished in two months. It worked with a local member of the Microsoft Partner Network to help with the migration and acquire best practices and faster problem resolution.

At the same time that it deployed its private cloud environment, the company’s development staff migrated to an agile software development methodology whereby requirements and solutions evolve through collaboration between cross-functional teams. This move required many new servers, which the staff were easily able to deliver with Hyper-V.

Six Million Visitors Hosted per Month
The Apartments.com private cloud environment consists of 24 physical host servers running the Windows Server 2008 R2 Datacenter operating system. It opted for a Server Core deployment, a lightweight Windows Server deployment with a minimal footprint. On this private cloud fabric, Apartments.com has created 320 virtual machines, for a density of about 25 virtual machines per host. The cloud environment is at about 70 percent of capacity, with plenty of room for more virtual servers.

The company has virtualized all servers that can be virtualized; it has about 70 physical servers across two data centers that cannot be virtualized, either because they run performance-critical databases or applications that are not supported on virtualized hardware.

The guest virtual machines run a mix of Windows Server 2008 R2, Windows Server 2008, Windows Server 2003, and the Ubuntu and Red Hat Enterprise distributions of the Linux operating system.

The company’s development and test host servers are Cisco UCS blade servers and its production servers are HP ProLiant DL580 servers. “We liked blade servers because it’s easy to slide in a new server if there’s a failure,” Stratton says. “We can prebuild a server and have it waiting in the wings.”

Apartments.com has virtualized all its application workloads, including its primary line-of-business application—the running of its namesake website. “The Apartments.com website gets about 6 million visitors a month, and it’s all virtualized,” says Pat Anderson, Chief Technology Officer for Apartments.com. “All our front-end web servers are virtualized and our application servers are virtualized, as are all the web services that support the processing of information through our nearly 1,000 web partners.”

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* The local Microsoft account team walked our engineers through technical ‘deep dives’ around current and future capabilities, and our staff came out of the proof of concept feeling really good about Hyper-V. *

Matt Stratton
Director, Technology Operations, Apartments.com

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Simplified Management, Licensing
Apartments.com is in the process of upgrading to Microsoft System Center 2012, which is designed specifically for managing private cloud environments. The capability that Stratton and Anderson are most excited about is Server App-V. With Server App-V, IT teams can create virtual application packages—or images of applications—that they can copy to a computer running the Server App-V Agent without requiring a local installation. The company can use Server App-V to reduce the number of images that need to be managed, speed software deployment, and improve application availability.

“The real value for us is using the System Center 2012 Virtual Machine Manager library as a system of record for all our virtualized applications,” Stratton says. “Once we’ve configured an application with Server App-V, we can put it in the library and send it out to all environments where it’s needed with only a couple of mouse-clicks.”

Stratton also likes the fact that Microsoft acquired AVIcode, a Microsoft .NET application monitoring tool, and made it interoperable with System Center 2012. Apartments.com can use it to improve performance reporting about server health.

Soon, developers at Apartments.com will be able to provision their own virtual machines using a template and a self-service portal. By using extensive automation capabilities that are built into System Center 2012, they can eliminate most of the manual work involved in provisioning and deprovisioning virtual resources.

Apartments.com has even found that Microsoft licensing terms are designed to make private cloud computing easier. The company licenses host and guest operating systems through its Microsoft Enterprise Agreement and the Windows Server R2 Datacenter license.

“With our current licenses, we never run up against a licensing barrier,” Stratton says. “In fact, the more we virtualize, the better deal we get. Microsoft does a good job of working with us to make sure that we get the best licensing value possible and also get the most value from the products we have. We get great value and less license management work.”

Benefits
By switching from VMware to Hyper-V, Apartments.com was able to significantly expand its virtualization efforts and create a private cloud environment that serves not only its development and test environments but its production environment, too. With the automation made possible by using System Center 2012, developers can create new servers in hours rather than days, which means that they can deploy new features faster and deliver outstanding site performance. Not only are IT costs lower, IT staff is more efficient and better able to add greater value to the business.

Faster Delivery of New Features
Apartments.com feels that at last it has a dynamic and agile infrastructure that the IT staff can use to respond faster to the business and that the business can use to respond faster to market demands. “We have a long list of items on our product roadmap. By using Hyper-V and System Center, we have a better chance of getting them up and running before our competition,” Anderson says. “We can scale our infrastructure faster and more cost-effectively using Hyper-V and our Enterprise Agreement than we could with VMware.”

For example, during its migration to an agile development environment, the IT staff was able to very quickly deliver servers needed in a hurry. “During our move to an agile environment, our systems engineers had to provision many new servers and were able to bring them up much faster and more consistently by using Hyper-V and System Center,” says Stratton. “We were able to automate our manual virtual machine deployment processes to provide developers with the tools they needed. It used to take two days to build an application using manual VMware processes—now we can do it in six hours.”

After Apartments.com has implemented Server App-V in System Center, it will be able to deploy and refresh applications much faster. “Each of these refreshes currently takes days. We refresh applications every two weeks for each product team, so we’re talking about a big time savings companywide,” Stratton says.

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* The Apartments.com website gets about 6 million visitors a month, and it’s all virtualized. *

Pat Anderson
Chief Technology Officer, Apartments.com

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In addition, with a nearly limitless reserve of easily deployable compute resources, Apartments.com can pursue multiple development projects simultaneously, without carefully distributing servers. “Previously, we had to prioritize our development projects in response to demanding workloads,” Anderson says. “But now we can keep more projects up and running simultaneously through the support of multiple teams. With a private cloud environment, we have enough resources to meet the day-to-day demands of a thriving online company.”

Anderson adds that the company is also better able to respond to search engine optimization rules imposed by commercial search engines. “Search services like Bing and Google are constantly changing their algorithms to improve results for users, and we have to react to those changes,” she says. “If we get development environments set up faster, our developers can make those changes faster.”

Ability to Serve 6 Million Visitors a Month
Because search companies score companies’ page speeds and factor that into search placement, it is important that Apartments.com be able to scale its server infrastructure quickly to maintain excellent performance.

Apartments.com is currently serving approximately 6 million visitors a month with its private cloud infrastructure based on Microsoft technology. “Customers never have to wait a second because we can easily keep all our servers at maximum performance with our cloud environment,” says Stratton. “We have laid the groundwork for an automatically scaling environment that will help us meet the cyclic nature of our business.”

Stratton looks forward to the day when System Center 2012 detects a high CPU load on a web server, creates an automated workflow to deploy several more web servers, and automatically documents the changes—with no IT staff involved.

Virtualization Licensing Costs Reduced by 75 Percent
By switching from VMware to Hyper-V, Apartments.com significantly reduced its licensing costs. More importantly, with private cloud computing, it is able to take full advantage of its hardware resources.

“We’ve reduced our licensing costs by 75 percent by switching from VMware to Hyper-V,” Stratton says. “And with the intelligent, proactive insight we get by using System Center, we feel more comfortable pushing our servers to their limit because we can predict when they will be maxed out. We don’t have to buy more servers just because they’re 70 percent full.”

With cloud computing, capacity planning and capital budgeting are also easier for Apartments.com. “We prepare an annual capital budget, but projects come up all the time between budget cycles,” Anderson says. “Previously, we had to make educated guesses when determining server needs and usually over-bought. With the private cloud, we can look at our resources as an aggregate and not have to do such precise capacity planning. This, and the flexibility of the Enterprise Agreement, gives us a great deal of elasticity in distributing our resources and using them fully.”

IT Staff Costs Decreased by 20 Percent
Apartments.com has reduced not only software and hardware costs, but also staff costs with Hyper-V-based cloud computing. “I estimate that our headcount costs will be 10 to 20 percent lower for managing a cloud environment,” says Anderson. “It frees our systems engineers and administrators to focus on their core competencies. They can improve site performance and work with developers to improve our product rather than building servers. Plus, people are happier when they feel they’re providing more value rather than pushing buttons.”

Windows Server 2008 R2
Windows Server 2008 R2 is a multipurpose operating system designed to increase the reliability and flexibility of your server and private cloud infrastructure, helping you to save time and reduce costs. It provides you with powerful tools to react to business needs faster than ever before with greater control and confidence. For more information, visit:

www.microsoft.com/en-us/server-cloud/windows-server

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 Apartments.com products and services, call (312) 601-5000 or visit the website at:
www.apartments.com

Solution Overview



Organization Size: 250 employees

Organization Profile

Apartments.com is a national online resource for individuals looking for an apartment, representing listings from property management companies, newspapers, and other partner websites. It is based in Chicago, Illinois.


Business Situation

To stay competitive, Apartments.com needs to introduce new services frequently and deliver outstanding web performance. It found that its VMware-based infrastructure was too inflexible to meet developer needs and too expensive to deploy in production.


Solution

Apartments.com switched from VMware to Hyper-V technology in Windows Server 2008 R2 Datacenter and is using Microsoft System Center 2012 to configure a private cloud environment.


Benefits

  • Faster delivery of new features
  • Six million visitors a month served
  • Licensing costs 75 percent lower
  • Better hardware utilization
  • IT staff costs 20 percent lower


Hardware
  • Cisco UCS blade servers
  • HP ProLiant DL580 servers

Software and Services
  • Microsoft System Center 2012
  • Windows Server 2008 R2 Datacenter

Vertical Industries
Professional Services

Country/Region
United States

Business Need
  • Cloud & Server Platform
  • Cost Containment

IT Issue
  • Virtualization
  • Private Cloud

Languages
English

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