Brad Sites and Beth Stephenson optimized the Missouri Employers Mutual Insurance data center using VMware vSphere 4 on HP ProLiant servers.
Aug 18 2010

The Sensibility of Server Virtualization

Missouri Employers Mutual Insurance benefits from reduced costs and complexity, plus a more adaptable data center.

Building maximum efficiency into an information technology infrastructure isn’t a luxury in an era of intense competition and severe cost pressures. Brad Sites, system administrator for Missouri Employers Mutual Insurance, knows this fact all too well.

At MEM, Missouri’s leading provider of workers’ compensation insurance, optimizing IT systems has become nothing short of a mission. The company, which boasts more than 12,000 policyholders and has more than 200 employees at its headquarters and three satellite offices, offers policies to nearly 600 different classes of business throughout the state.

To optimize its data center, the firm, based in Columbia, Mo., turned to server virtualization and consolidation. The focused strategy has ratcheted up performance, increased efficiency and is helping to keep IT expenditures under control.

Over the past couple of years, the insurance provider has reduced its server footprint by 90 percent while trimming business and IT-related costs. “An organization must find ways to streamline systems, optimize performance and manage costs,” Sites says. “We are realizing significant results through virtualization.”

Policy Matters

The company makes it a priority to strive for greater efficiency in its business and IT operations. A staff of nearly two dozen oversees IT systems that range from proprietary applications to off-the-shelf software. A wide area network connects satellite offices in St. Louis, Kansas City and Springfield, Mo., via a T1 line.

“Server virtualization was on our information technology road map for quite some time,” Sites explains. “But we wanted to introduce it at the appropriate time and in the right way so the process would unfold smoothly.”

In 2009, the company found itself faced with a major server refresh and warranty renewal. It seemed like a natural time to make key changes to the IT infrastructure. “We knew we were going to face a significant expense upgrading and refreshing systems,” Sites explains. As a result, “We felt it was the perfect opportunity to jump into server virtualization and consolidate resources.”

During summer 2009, MEM began looking for opportunities to put server virtualization into action across the enterprise. The IT team began analyzing the company’s IT infrastructure and mapping out a strategy for making the transition to the new environment.

After conducting a three-week analysis, the IT team developed a business case for the virtualization initiative and presented it to senior-level executives. About two weeks later, they received approval to proceed. One of the keys to this quick turnaround was that the plan was budget neutral because the conversion to virtualized servers coincided with what would have been scheduled server upgrades.

Over the ensuing three weeks, the company put the new servers and virtualization software in place, completing the project one week early. By October 2009, the virtualization environment was in live operation.

Not surprisingly, there were a few challenges along the way. MEM had to experiment with different conversion methods to determine which approach worked best. Yet, the biggest obstacle was simply sorting through the tangle of physical boxes and all the hardware and software configurations they contained.

“In some cases, it was necessary to use a trial-and-error approach,” Sites says. “We would just try different methods until something worked.”

Initially, MEM purchased two HP ProLiant DL380 servers for its virtualization initiative. About a month later, the company added two additional servers and tied them into the virtualized environment as well.

Testing and Development

MEM opted for a VMware platform running VMware vSphere 4 Enterprise Plus. Besides the desire to address servers nearing their end of life, Sites recognized a need to build a safe, self-contained testing and development environment.

A primary goal for MEM was to accommodate a new software package that could address strategic business goals while keeping total IT operational expenses to a defined percentage of revenue. “In order to succeed, we needed to build out a mirror image of our production environment and factor in the number of servers,” Sites adds.

Server virtualization simplifies IT testing of new applications by allowing systems administrators to test in a secure virtual machine (VM) environment. Once complete, they can roll back to a clean slate via the snapshot feature.

“Virtualization offered an opportunity to flesh out this environment at a much lower cost than if we were using conventional servers and building the computing environment into individual machines,” Sites adds.

In addition, MEM calculated that server virtualization would save the company money, cutting costs for both servers and energy. Its data center was running out of space, and a reduced footprint offered energy savings and other advantages, including reduced cabling and the need for fewer UPS systems.

When the department moved into its current data center in November 2005, it provided plenty of room. However, “four years later, we realized we had begun to feel the crunch of a lack of space,” Sites notes. “The racks were full, and we had machines scattered throughout the center.”

The upside was that IT wound up adding a new server when conditions demanded additional computing power. Although MEM attempted to reduce costs by reusing some older hardware, including workstations, it had begun to hit the wall in terms of space and performance.

Today, MEM has 56 VMs running on the four physical hosts. “The server virtualization initiative has allowed us to reduce the number of older, reused, non–server class machines in our data center while reducing our computing footprint,” he explains. In addition, IT can add new servers to the mix almost immediately.

Beyond Computing

Missouri Employers Mutual Insurance continues to explore server virtualization and how it can benefit the company. In the past, the company had essentially relied on a one-application-to-one-server approach.

“We still have some single-purpose virtual machines out there,” says Beth Stephenson, associate systems administrator for MEM. But things are changing. “We need to undergo a reconfiguration of existing machines in order to make the environment even more efficient.”

Using virtualization, MEM is able to reduce the wasted server space and low utilization rates that occur in physical machines. In fact, it has 80 percent of existing physical server space available for future growth.

The initial goal for the company was to consolidate servers and achieve cost and data center space savings. However, Sites and other IT executives now plan to reconfigure the virtualized servers in order to make them far more efficient. “It is an opportunity that will bring additional gains,” he says.

Paul Howell