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Is Virtualization Technology Really Green?

The impact of virtual machine hosting technology on IT sustainability

As the need for department websites, images, and data continues to expand in higher education, many university offices are overwhelmed with the costs of maintaining servers and equipment used to support these demands. At Penn State, groups such as World Campus, the Office of University Relations, Web Lion and the Schreyer Honors College have begun using a University service known as “Virtual Machine Hosting” to address these needs.

For Matt Scott, manager of the Development and Infrastructure Team in Information Technology Services (ITS)—and overall virtualization evangelist—the hope is for virtual machine hosting technology to be increasingly used by organizations across Penn State, leading to more efficient and effective IT alternatives that are both “green and truly helpful.”

Matt Scott

The word “virtualization” generally means “simulated or performing the functions of something that isn’t really there.” With that in mind—does Virtual Machine Hosting equate to the concept of an imaginary friend for computer systems?

Technically speaking [he smiles], Virtual Machine (VM) technology enables multiple operating systems to run on a single physical server simultaneously. Hundreds or thousands of virtual servers can operate on even moderately sized groups of physical machines. At Penn State, many University departments and groups are taking advantage of this capability and are building their own infrastructures to support it. However, we recognize that not everyone who could benefit from these technologies is in a position to deploy their own virtualization infrastructure.

What is the ITS Virtual Machine Hosting service?

Basically, we provide servers as a service ... and through this service, departments are able to lease virtual servers that are housed and maintained by Penn State’s ITS Consulting and Support Services unit. We build the server image, install the operating system, configure most software according to individual requirements, back it up every night, even handle all the networking and initial security. Our goal is to make it easy for units to deploy a server for almost any purpose. Since equipment, infrastructure, and space are all supplied by ITS, users are able to save money and staff time. In addition, they’re able to conserve energy by eliminating the power needed to run large networked computer systems.

Describe the base specs of the VM servers at Penn State.

Our base VMs are configured with one virtual processor, 1GB of RAM, and 50GB of very fast disk space, but VMs can be configured by customers to meet their needs. One nice thing about a VM is that it only takes a few minutes to add CPU, memory and disk space should the need arise. We install and support Red Hat Linux Enterprise and Windows Server, but customers are free to use other operating systems as well. We would love to offer Mac OS X as well, and as soon as Apple opens the licensing to include virtualization on non-Apple hardware, we most likely will.

We’re always open to discussion on any other requirements or requests. We depend on our clients to help us improve the service.

Is virtualization technology really “green?”

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Like most environmental issues, it depends on who you ask. Within my group, virtual machine hosting technology has certainly resulted in fewer physical servers and less wasted processor cycles. However, the fact that virtualization technology still requires an entire infrastructure that includes servers, storage, network stacks - as well as cooling and security, might serve as a good argument against its greenness factor. We still need servers and storage and network stacks; cooling and security, and that entire infrastructure. An enterprise virtualization stack can be more expensive and draw more power than a handful of low-end commodity systems. And when you factor in the additional costs of staff training, software licenses and other incidentals, it seems like a mixed bag.

Are there any less expensive options?

One way that we try to help potential clients is by offering a “test” VM for a few weeks, without charge. We will also gladly meet with anyone who is exploring options to give our input and cost comparisons. There are a number of free virtualization products available that may be sufficient for small deployments, some operating systems are bundling them in or making them optional now. You don’t need to commit to any expense (other than time) to try the technology for yourself.

But what about the greenness factor?

Let me go back to my earlier definition for a minute. Virtualization has been around almost as long as modern computer systems. It is most often used when the power of a physical computing system needs to be efficiently distributed among highly segregated or fully isolated operating environments and applications. The key here is that each virtual machine is its own operating environment with its own applications, settings, and customizations. Multiple operating systems can live side-by-side on a single physical server or cluster of servers, moving freely between servers as the virtualization software balances workloads.

Matt Scott 3

Since VMs can be balanced among physical servers, the servers are almost never idle. If they are drawing power and using resources, then they’re doing valuable work. VMs can be added and removed from the cluster as needed and the impact on overall resource usage is minimal. The real power and efficiency lies in the ability to run multiple VMs per physical server simultaneously. A handful of moderately powered servers can support hundreds of VMs. Of course, not every application is suitable for virtualization, there are systems that do need dedicated hardware. As the software and hardware continue to improve though, more and more applications are being evaluated for suitability.

Can you give an example of how virtualization technology is environmentally responsible?

Good stewardship of resources means reducing waste and maximizing efficiency. If we can reduce the number of physical systems deployed and move those workloads to systems already running, we not only get more work for the energy consumed, but we reduce the need for electronic recycling and physical disposal. I would add that most of the Big Ten institutions have some sort of service like this, as do many other higher education institutions. Some are centrally funded, others are partially or fully cost-recovery.

What impact does virtualization technology have on a Big Ten institution like Penn State?

The VM service offered through ITS at Penn State has initially focused on individuals and small groups that would otherwise deploy more [physical server] boxes for special projects, web servers, research or instruction. Eliminating these types of systems under desks or in already crowded [telecommunications] closets does have a measurable impact on the University’s overall power consumption and cooling load in addition to the benefits I’ve already mentioned. Efficiency is not all about reduction though. At Penn State, we have focused on offering additional services like dedicated virtual firewalls and technical consulting to help our clients solve problems beyond deployment. We have also seen sensitive data move back to data centers and improved data integrity in some cases.

Personally speaking, what are your hopes for the future of virtualization technology at Penn State?

Virtualization is one tool in our ever changing IT toolbox. We believe it is a powerful tool, and as a central IT group we want to make it available to as much of the University community as possible. We hope to see partnerships develop with departments running their own clusters and enable everyone else to benefit from new developments in this area. We are also looking at how this technology could impact desktop computing for faculty and staff.

My hope is that the VM service will result in fewer server boxes under desks and in telecommunications closets...resulting in more efficient and effective IT alternatives that are both “green” and truly helpful. ■

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