Drama in a courtroom is expected, and often the result of a high-stakes case. Drama in a data center is unexpected, and often the result of aging equipment. For Jerry Bishop, director of information technology at law firm Reinhart Boerner Van Deuren, the goal is to give attorneys an experience that’s as stress-free as possible when using the company’s IT infrastructure.
The Milwaukee law firm, ranked among the 250 largest firms in the United States, is now running on a growing portfolio of virtualized technologies to support its long-term goals.
When it comes to virtualization, Bishop knows there’s always room to improve and innovate. With more than 25 years of IT leadership experience, he can virtualize applications until they’re all (or nearly all) virtualized. He can take advantage of different benefits, such as virtualization’s disaster recovery features, and over time, he can optimize performance with new IT infrastructure.
Virtualization is one of the most popular IT projects undertaken by businesses. Consolidating servers and increasing server utilization saves money, simplifies IT management and improves reliability, uptime and productivity.
The technology also gives businesses the agility and flexibility to spin up virtual machines (VMs) quickly when needed and to spin down and reprovision resources when they are not in use, says Greg Schulz, founder of the StorageIO Group, an IT consulting firm.
For many companies, virtualization is an ongoing project in which implementation is continuously fine-tuned and optimized. Some virtualize their desktops, storage and the network, or migrate to the cloud, which can further simplify IT management and improve services, Schulz says.
To facilitate virtualization, some companies upgrade to more VM-friendly, easier-to-manage hardware, such as the storage hardware Reinhart purchased; or converged equipment, where servers, storage and networking equipment work as an integrated unit.
Last year, Bishop and his IT team saw a slowdown in virtual desktop performance and discovered that their storage area networks (SANs) were the main culprit. They upgraded to flash-based storage appliances that sped up response time and simplified the storage provisioning process, eliminating the cumbersome and time-consuming task of configuring volumes and logical unit numbers.
“Every now and then, users would type an email and notice the letters were not appearing on their screens immediately. Now those problems are gone,” Bishop says. “Because the new storage system is VM-aware, storage is now part of the virtual environment and much easier to administer. We no longer have to do the behind-the-scenes stuff.”
Since Bishop joined Reinhart in 2013, he’s strived to modernize the company’s existing, 4-year-old VMware virtual environment, aiming to make it as efficient and effective as possible, while improving the user experience for the 205 attorneys, 220 support staffers and several dozen contractors who work at the law firm.
When Bishop arrived, he inherited a data center that housed about 470 virtual desktops for employees and about 300 applications that were more than 90 percent virtualized.
Bishop’s first task was to improve virtual desktop performance, and it required him to update old IT infrastructure that was ready for a refresh.
As the firm expanded and opened new offices in Chicago and Phoenix in recent years, the influx of new employees and the resulting growth in workload and storage requirements were causing storage latency issues. The SAN vendor’s replication software for disaster recovery also contributed to the woes.
“We were maxing out on the IOPs [input/output operations per second],” he says. “A lot of data passes back and forth when you run virtual desktops. And when you’re also replicating data to your DR site, that creates a great deal of load.”
At times, the virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) implementation was so slow, some users told Bishop that they wanted physical desktop or notebook computers. In fact, 40 percent of the help desk calls were complaints about virtual desktops.
To solve the problem, he researched the latest storage technology and acquired new Tintri VMstore appliances, whose flash storage provides faster data access.
“Tintri is fast and performs really well,” he says. “All those calls about the virtual desktops are gone.”
Because Tintri appliances are plug and play and integrate with VMware, the IT department can now set up storage for a new virtual server in minutes — much faster than the hour it used to take with the previous SANs.
The new storage hardware, combined with new Veeam replication software for virtual environments, has also made it much faster and easier for Reinhart’s IT department to back up and protect its VMs and data.
Bishop isn’t finished with his improvements. During the past year, he upgraded to new HP BladeSystem blade servers and pushed to virtualize the company’s remaining stand-alone applications. Today, everything is virtualized except three index servers for a document management system.
He also plans to upgrade to the latest version of VMware Horizon VDI software and give users access to virtual desktops on mobile devices. “We are developing a mobile strategy and want to give them mobile desktops,” he says.
CEB, which provides corporate leaders with best practices, research and services to manage their businesses and talent, recently consolidated their global data centers by nearly half, and virtualization was a key.
CEB, based in Arlington, Va., has grown to 4,100 employees in nearly 50 locations worldwide because of a handful of company acquisitions in recent years, including SHL, a cloud-based talent measurement and management firm.
The newly integrated company had a mixed bag of technology in its data centers, with about 67 percent of its applications virtualized. In 2014, the company decided to build its own private cloud to host its customer-facing applications and some internal applications.
“We were using VMs in silos here and there. But to become a private cloud and to lower our total cost of ownership, we needed to standardize and have a consistent build across the globe,” says Don Wiegner, former head of CEB’s global enterprise technology services.
CEB standardized on VCE’s Vblock converged infrastructure, an integrated solution that features Cisco UCS blade servers, EMC storage, VMware software and Cisco switches that are preconfigured and easy to deploy. Last year, the company consolidated 10 data centers into six new data centers globally.
“The great thing about Vblock is that they did configuration testing,” says Ian Horne, director of CEB’s member and production infrastructure. “The headaches of managing infrastructure at the component level are removed from the equation, so you can deploy rapidly.”
Today, 97 percent of applications are virtualized. The company has also seen, on average, a 50 percent increase in application performance and has benefited from a streamlined data center infrastructure that’s much easier to manage and maintain, resulting in better customer service, says Duke Tunstall, head of CEB’s global IT operations.
CEB’s IT staff now have the option to move applications between data centers while doing server maintenance. And if a department requests 70 virtual servers, the IT team can spin up the servers in a few hours. In the past, that process would take days or weeks.
Virtualization has also improved business continuity. “Our systems are more reliable, and it gives our business units the confidence that their applications are going to be stable,” says Tunstall.
Overall, CEB and Reinhart are seeing a good return on investment in virtualization and related infrastructure.
Reinhart’s new IT infrastructure has allowed IT staff to consolidate its data center from seven racks to three, which saves money. And the easier storage management has freed up staff to focus on other IT or business challenges. “Instead of managing storage, they can help attorneys with e-discovery in a case or with IT compliance goals for privacy and security,” Bishop says.