Maxol drives forward on its virtual journey with Microsoft
Published: June 2010
Maxol and Microsoft have enjoyed a pioneering partnership in virtualisation with the oil company taking advantage of software upgrades and new features to develop an increasingly sophisticated Hyper-V environment. The benefits are coming thick and fast, bringing more value to the wider business
Maxol was one of the earliest adopters of Microsoft’s virtualisation technology in Ireland when it took the decision in 2007 to invest in the first iterations of the software. The country’s oldest independent oil company went on to transform its comms room in its Dublin head office, consolidating racks of 22 servers down to six to better deliver IT services to the firm’s 250 service stations and 170 employees.
An IT project that would substantially improve server performance and reduce power costs, it also provided a platform for a server estate that was much easier to manage. But the “more for less” benefits were just the beginning of a journey rather than the end.
Group IT Manager Stephen McCormack continually looks at ways to build on the virtualised environment and extract more efficiency. He is keen to track the product evolution of Microsoft’s virtualisation solutions and migrate to new versions of the software if its suits the business strategy.
At the outset he had been tempted by competing products that came with a longer track record and promised more functionality, but he was confident that Microsoft would deliver on its ambitions for virtualisation, improving the features while retaining a highly competitive price point.
“When we started we didn’t need all the bells and whistles of other products. Initially, we just wanted to virtualise file and print services, but we also knew that Microsoft would develop its products and be able to virtualise other services as and when we were ready to move to them,” said McCormack.
With the help of Dell IT Consulting, a Microsoft Gold partner, Maxol moved to Windows Server 2008 with Hyper-V technology and at the same time invested in Microsoft System Center Virtual Manager 2008 to simplify the IT management of the estate. The 64-bit environment and database optimisation that came with Windows SQL Server 2008 were other reasons to make an investment.
At the time, McCormack was happy to take the benefits of consolidation but had an eye on a longer term play. “The virtualised environment is the foundation stone on which the IT team will build future business value,” he said.
The most recent phase began following the launch of Windows Server 2008 R2 with Hyper-V, a significant milestone in the evolution of Microsoft’s virtualisation portfolio. Here was a product that built on the architecture and functionality of the original software, adding features that take the flexibility of virtualisation a step further.
“Although the servers had become more efficient, there were still limitations with the virtualisation platform. We knew that the R2 upgrades would increase the stability and give us more resilience,” said Stephen McCormack.
Dell helped upgrade five host servers to Windows Server 2008 R2 from Windows Server 2008. System Center Essentials was also installed and the decision was taken to migrate to the R2edition of System Center Virtual Manager 2008 to take advantage of some new tools. “There is no doubt that the new version has got better in terms of managing the environment,” explained Kieran Fitzgerald, Microsoft Solutions Architect, Dell. “It joins everything together into one overarching management environment.”
Live Migration was a key feature, allowing the IT team to move a running virtual machine from one physical host to another without any disruption to the service. High availability makes downtime less of an issue.
System Center Data Protection Manager 2010 gives Maxol local data protection for the Windows servers as well as desktops and laptops, and makes it easy to centralise and manage patch upgrades to counter security threats. But it also provides the company with a disaster recovery plan that gives the business a level of stability and resilience that was not there before.
In tandem with these upgrades, the steady migration to virtual servers continued. “We have taken more applications that were running on physical servers to the virtual farm,” said McCormack. Among them was a CRM SQL database and a third party document management system.
There are also plans to extend the suite of Microsoft applications, taking advantage of enterprise license agreements to do more with little or no extra investment. The next phase will see the roll out of SharePoint 2010, providing the company with an enterprise wide portal and document repository. At the same time there will be an upgrade to Microsoft SQL Server 2008, empowering Maxol to get a better grip on its expanding information management platforms while ensuring mission-critical information is kept secure and highly available.
Trials are also taking place of Office Communication Server between the two primary sites, preparing the way for the introduction of Unified Communications. Hyper-V has played an important role in these developments. “Having a virtual environment means we don’t have to invest in more physical hardware every time we want to run a new application. We just install them on virtual servers,” said Nicholas Merton, IT systems Administrator at Maxol.
The ability to quickly provision new services is another benefit of running a virtualised environment. The process can take minutes without the need for additional hardware investment.
Maxol’s ERP system is the one major application that remains on a single physical server but McCormack said it is only a matter of time before it is migrated to a virtual machine. “Over time I am confident it can be accommodated in the new environment, but I want everything in place and working as efficiently as possible before we make the move,” he said.
For Maxol, the development of a virtual environment has been a series of incremental gains for the IT department and the wider business. With the deployment of the R2 release, Data Protection Manager2010 and System Center Essentials 2010 and Exchange 2007, Stephen McCormack believes even bigger benefits are coming to fruition. What started out as consolidation exercise, moving physical servers on to virtual hosts, has created a platform for strategic IT initiatives that will benefit the business for many years to come. The imminent roll out of SharePoint and early trials of Office Communications Server 2007 R2 are the most recent examples.
Along the way, improvements to System Center have made it easier for the IT team to optimise and manage the environment with minimal disruption to services, while the fast provisioning of virtual servers at no extra cost has opened the door for rolling out more business applications.
Increased server utilisation and a more dynamic infrastructure have been further bolstered by a disaster recovery plan that gives Maxol unprecedented levels of business continuity. Using Data Protection Manager2010, key servers, file and print, SQL and email, are backed up to an offsite location every 15 minutes. “In the event of a disaster, we are confident that we could recover it all and have it up and running again in one day,” said Merton. “Before we had to restore from tapes and I wouldn’t have been at all confident that we could rescue everything. Now we can.”
Some other benefits have been realised simply through experience. One of the ironies of virtualisation is that physical server sprawl ends up being replaced with the virtual equivalent. “It can become an issue because it’s so easy to create new servers. If you come across a business problem it’s a quick solution but it can run out of control,” said Merton. “That is something we have got much better at handling over the years.”
Working with an expanding suite of Microsoft software, Maxol has been at the forefront of a virtual revolution that is sweeping through organisations. But Stephen McCormack is quick to point out that the projects have always been cutting edge rather than bleeding edge. “All the way along this journey we have been cautious. We have no right to be at the bleeding edge. We are not an IT firm,” he said.
There is no sense, however, that the job is done. “The first phase of our virtualisation strategy was about hardware and putting in the building blocks. The second phase will be about driving the benefits through to our end users with virtual desktops and more emphasis on application delivery,” he said. “That is something we are looking at now.”
Dell IT Consulting, a Microsoft Gold partner
An oil company with 250 service stations and five strategic locations across Ireland
Oil distribution, retail and wholesale
Maxol has embarked on the next phase of its migration to improved releases of Microsoft virtualisation software and associated products
Virtualisation has provided a platform for a suite of Microsoft products and management tools that are transforming the business
- Improved resilience and disaster recovery
- Reduced downtime due to high availability and more stability
- Ongoing consolidation and associated cost savings
- A more flexible environment to manage
- Virtualisation facilitates other IT initiatives at little extra cost
Windows Server 2008 R2 with Hyper-V
System Center Virtual Manager 2010
System Center Essentials 2010
System Center Data Protection Manager 20102008
For More Information
About Microsoft in Ireland:
The Irish Sales, Services and Marketing Operation of Microsoft was established in 1991. The full-time team market all Microsoft products and services in the island of Ireland, targeting customers both North and South. The team services customers across all segments including enterprise, small and medium sized businesses and home computer users. In addition to developing desktop products, Microsoft provides tailored consultancy services and solutions to suit enterprise businesses. Microsoft is continuing to concentrate on its relationship with the Irish enterprise market - the top 100 companies in the island of Ireland. Enterprise customers of Microsoft include the Department of Education in Northern Ireland and the Civil Service Commission, Dublin.
For more information on Microsoft’s products and solutions, please visit www.microsoft.com/ireland
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