Information technology reseller CDW provides its customers with customized software and hardware solutions, along with support for implementation and systems management. One way the company stays at the leading edge of technology is by becoming an early adopter of new software releases, and the company’s Software Sales division is at the forefront of that effort. The division uses the Microsoft System Center family of systems management products to help keep its data center running with minimal support staff. With the deployment of Microsoft Exchange Server 2010 and the Exchange Server 2010 Management Pack for System Center Operations Manager 2007, the division’s IT team can more easily monitor and troubleshoot server issues to help ensure that important data is backed up and the division’s email system is up and running.
CDW is an IT reseller that provides technology solutions for customers in a variety of industries, including government and education. The Microsoft Gold Certified Partner is ranked as one of the 50-largest private companies in the United States by Forbes magazine. Since its founding in1984, CDW has placed a focus on integrity and customer satisfaction, and this has fueled the company’s continued growth.
Within CDW, the Software Sales division is responsible for a quarter of the company’s U.S.$8 billion yearly income. The division stays on the leading edge of the company’s technology efforts by participating in many early adoption programs for software, and it maintains its own server and network infrastructure. “Our environment serves as a test bed for the company,” says Andrew Hitchcock, Microsoft Unified Communications Practice Architect at CDW. “We can test new software and work out any kinks without affecting the rest of the business—we really push the envelope.”
The Software Sales environment is based on the Windows Server 2008 R2 operating system, and the staff uses the Microsoft System Center family of systems management products as a key part of the division’s technology tool kit. “We’ve been using System Center since 2005,” says Doug Miller, Practice Architect for CDW. “We rely on the tools in the suite to help keep our infrastructure up and running.”
Another vital part of the CDW technology stack is Microsoft Exchange Server email messaging and collaboration software. “Exchange Server has been our primary communications tool since the 5.5 release, and the software sales IT environment was created to test Exchange Server 2007 and prepare for a corporate-wide rollout,” says Hitchcock. “Since then, the environment has grown to incorporate Microsoft Office Communications Server, Microsoft Office SharePoint Server, the System Center family of systems management products, Hyper-V virtualization technology, Microsoft SQL Server data management software, and the Microsoft Desktop Optimization Pack.
Within the Software Sales division’s data center, the staff manages a mix of physical and virtual servers. There are currently 21 physical servers, as well as 32 virtual servers that run Windows Server 2008 R2 with Hyper-V virtualization technology and have been set up by using Microsoft System Center Virtual Machine Manager. “We believe strongly in virtualization,” says Miller. “We’re never going to get rid of all of our physical servers, but we expect all of our future growth to be virtual, because the administration is so much simpler.”
||The System Center brand of products allows us to manage, monitor, and back up our enterprise systems and workloads with minimal effort. It makes our job much easier.
Practice Architect, CDW
Two of the data center’s physical servers are dedicated to hosting Exchange Server, and System Center Operations Manager has been an important tool for overseeing those servers. Because the Software Sales division evaluates so much new software, the Exchange Server environment is constantly in flux. “We’re always making changes—building servers, taking down servers, and transitioning data and services from one release to the next,” says Hitchcock. “In just the last two months, I moved everyone’s mailboxes at least twice.”
Although the division’s environment is a proving ground for new software, it is also a production environment for the division’s 550 employees, so it is important that the technology environment is available and stable. The entire infrastructure is managed by the equivalent of one full-time employee, with four staff members each contributing a quarter of their time. To keep the systems running with such a lean staff, the division needs access to reliable tools that automate server management and reduce systems administration overhead.
A stable Exchange Server environment is critical to day-to-day operations at CDW. “I can’t overestimate the importance of Exchange,” says Miller. “We rely on it the same way we rely on having running water. If Exchange Server went down for more than an hour, there would be tremendous pressure on us to get it back up and running. If we upgrade to a new version, we want to make sure we have the right tools to manage it.”Solution
As part of its effort to take advantage of the latest versions of key applications, the CDW Software Sales division became an early adopter of Microsoft Exchange Server 2010. To best manage its new environment, the division installed the Exchange Server 2010 Management Pack for System Center Operations Manager 2007, which provides server health monitoring tools and automatic alerts to notify administrators of services outages or performance degradation. The addition of the pack to the latest version of the management software has proven to be a winning combination.
|Figure 1. The Microsoft System Center Data Protection Manager 2010 administrator |
console, showing the status of Exchange Server mailbox backups
“The latest version of System Center Operations Manager is by far the best yet,” says Hitchcock. “There are fewer redundant alerts, and it does a much better job of presenting just the essential information and hiding unnecessary details. Beyond that, it really gives us peace of mind, knowing that if we’re not receiving alerts, the system is running just fine. In the past, we might have had to comb through event logs to locate a problem; but now, Operations Manager alerts us to issues and provides best practice guidance to help me fix them.”
If Exchange Server 2010 stops responding, IT staff would likely be aware of the problem very quickly, even without the use of management tools. The staff at CDW has found that the predictive alerts within System Center Operations Manager 2007 R2 are the most valuable. “Not only does Operations Manager show us the health of our environment and alert us to problems, but it also warns us about issues that may become problems later,” says Hitchcock. “That way, we can monitor the situation and make proactive adjustments if we need to.”
IT professionals at CDW have found additional features in System Center Operations Manager 2007 R2 that help simplify management of Exchange Server 2010. Automatic service discovery detects features, server roles, and clustering so that administrators do not need to manually register configuration changes, and the distributed application view of the infrastructure provides a quick visual representation of the status of multiple servers. “Operations Manager is a one-stop shop to let us know the health of our environment,” says Miller. “And it has been great at adapting to the idiosyncrasies of our ever-changing infrastructure.”
In addition, performance metrics and reporting capabilities in System Center Operations Manager have simplified systems administration, providing IT staff with access to valuable information to help make technology decisions. “The monitoring and reporting features give us the data we need to show upper management the challenges that we face in maintaining such a high level of service,” says Miller. “This makes it easier for us to justify the cost and effort that goes into maintaining the environment.”
The IT team has also taken advantage of Microsoft System Center Data Protection Manager 2010, which helps protect data in Exchange Server and enables the recovery of complete databases, even individual mailboxes and messages. “Data Protection Manager is the most valuable tool for me after Operations Manager,” says Hitchcock. “It understands what’s going on within Exchange Server, and it’s taking a backup snapshot every 30 minutes, so if we ever need to do a recovery, it always has up-to-date information. It’s so easy to use that I don’t need to enlist the help of Data Protection Manager specialists.”
||We believe strongly in virtualization. We’re never going to get rid of all of our physical servers, but we expect all of our future growth to be virtual, because the administration is so much simpler.
Practice Architect, CDW
The team has also used System Center Data Protection Manager 2010 to help correct disk usage problems that it had experienced with other system tools. “One of the challenges we’ve run into before has been storage constraints, and we’ve had storage volumes that filled up, which resulted in backups not getting completed,” says Hitchcock. “With the release of Data Protection Manager 2010, we can take advantage of automatic growing of data protection volumes, and now we’re in great shape.”
For CDW, the final essential element of the System Center suite has been Microsoft System Center Configuration Manager 2007 SP2. The IT team uses it to automatically deploy critical software and security updates within its Exchange Server–based environments, in a way that is essentially transparent. “I occasionally see a box in the corner of the screen that tells me that System Center Configuration Manager is going to run a software update, and when I come in the next day I get another message saying the updates were installed,” explains Hitchcock. “And that’s all I need to know.”
The Software Sales division believes that its investment in an integrated Microsoft technology stack within its data center provides key advantages when keeping its systems up and running. “Because Exchange Server 2010 and the System Center suite come from the same vendor, and there’s such a strong Microsoft user community, it makes support much easier,” says Hitchcock. “It’s really the only way we could do it. It works really well, and it’s hugely valuable that we don’t have to wait for third-party tools to catch up to new server releases. The Exchange Server 2010 Management Pack is a great example—the fact that it’s there and ready to support our new environment makes our job much simpler.”Benefits
By pairing System Center solutions with its early adoption of Exchange Server 2010 and the Exchange Server 2010 Management Pack for System Center Operations Manager 2007, the Software Sales division at CDW has simplified systems management for its lean IT staff and improved the performance of the Exchange environment to better serve its internal users. By choosing a set of interoperating solutions from the same vendor, CDW has helped to ensure that the various components of its technology stack work well together and are easy to support.
Simplified Systems Management
The four-person IT team in the Software Sales division relies on the System Center solutions to maintain Exchange Server 2010 and other software with minimal effort. “It’s been wonderful for us,” says Miller. “The System Center brand of products allows us to manage, monitor, and back up our enterprise systems and workloads with minimum effort. It makes our job much easier, and it enables us to dedicate time to other products that add value to our business.”
“The System Center dashboard certainly is a timesaver,” adds Hitchcock. “I can take a look at our Exchange environment and immediately know what’s not working. It also shows me what is working, and I know that I don’t have to worry about those parts. That makes it easier for me to prioritize any issues, and it cuts the time I spend dealing with them in half. In many ways, the tools make systems management basically invisible, which is the way it should be.”Better System Performance
Because Exchange Server 2010 is critical to the day-to-day work of CDW employees, it is essential that the IT staff provide a stable and reliable messaging environment. The System Center products have made that possible in a way that is transparent to users. “If the system is having problems, our users shouldn’t know about it,” says Hitchcock. “Because System Center Operations Manager and System Center Data Protection Manager function like a middle-tier infrastructure it allows the user-facing pieces to operate more efficiently. And the actionable alerts in Operations Manager enable us to proactively fix server problems before they become problems for our users.”
Strong Software Support
CDW recognizes that using a technology stack from a single vendor simplifies product support. Beyond that, choosing such a widely used set of tools has provided CDW with additional support benefits. “One thing that is really important to us around the System Center brand is the user community,” explains Miller. “We really push our software and management tools to the extreme, and without the System Center user community to rely on for sharing tips and tricks and best practices, we couldn’t do that.”
Microsoft System Center
System Center solutions help IT pros manage the physical and virtual information technology (IT) environments across data centers, client computers, and devices. Using these integrated and automated management solutions, IT organizations can be more productive service providers to their businesses.
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