Project in-depth, part 1: Virtualization eases bank's updates, reduces downtime

It could take an army of system administrators to constantly update and upgrade the IT systems that support Federal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco and its many branches and offices throughout the western U.S. But even an IT army couldn't do those things without disrupting the performance of hundreds of the bank's employees, thousands of customers, hundreds of servers and tens of billions of dollars in revenue exchanges.

Rather than put his IT army of about 100 people to work fighting fires caused by system changes, Mike Bedford, the bank's senior systems architect, sought and found a virtualization technology to do it for them. He then discovered that virtualization helped reduce manpower demands and costs in many other ways. In this two-part interview, he describes the switch to virtualization and its results.

We are hoping VMware will take it to the next level by providing real-time predictive failure and automated resumption of key services.
Mike Bedford
senior systems architectFederal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco
What's the one primary problem that led your IT team to start using virtualization software?
There are many times where we are faced with requirements to deploy or upgrade a solution and it's needed to be done yesterday. The business demands high availability and has a high expectation for versatility and flexibility in handling changes.

Unfortunately, business demands do not revolve around IT. In the financial sector, we are heavily audited to ensure that all compliancy standards are being met and cannot afford to just throw something onto the network without following our own required standards and due diligence. Also, the finance folks demand operating costs to remain low without, of course, compromising the levels of service. In looking for a solution to your change management challenges, what led you to virtualization?
One of the very first things we had to do is decide if the virtual computing concept was a good fit for our business. The mindset of thinking of a VM (virtual machine) being no different than its physical counterpart may be [counterintuitive] to many who are not used to the concept and/or were not around in the mainframe days.

We built a ROI (return on investment) model, leveraging substantial cost saving analysis on server hardware reduction, standard and secure provisioning in less than minutes versus four-to-six hours, enhanced change management, better service levels and simple [disaster recovery] regardless of the application.

The next phase was to educate the staff on the concepts and technology itself. Once the potential was realized, requirements soon followed. Things that went into the design phase were total redundancy, like better performance of a virtual machine versus physical counterparts, ease of use, centralized management and proven security isolation. After looking at many products, you chose VMware. Why?
With the on demand computing capabilities that VMware provides, we literally can deliver a standards based solution in mere minutes with all needed security configurations and audit requirements already in place. I no longer have to explain to my customers that we are unable to do something they need due to lengthy resource acquisition processes and deployment times. It's really an exceptional feeling. How did the VMware implementation go?
The actual implementation was rather straightforward given the hardened community of existing implementations and experience, as well as product maturity in the field.

We planned very well and worked with the VMware support folks to understand all options and configuration possibilities. Coupled with my previous work with VM technologies, the initial implementation and design was rather straightforward and worked as advertised.

MORE ON VIRTUALIZATION:

Read part 2 of this interview: Virtualization too risky for some, but its ROI rules 

Tip: It's time to take a look at server virtualization

How much maintenance is needed?
It has been a set and forget solution, which has been great. It leaves my administration staff free to work on real issues [rather than] supporting an infrastructure. Could you describe some ways you put VMware to use?
We use VMware to solve a multitude of issues and continue to find more creative solutions that rely on this multifaceted technology. Unlike traditional products where it is purchased to fit one specific need, VMware is more or less a Swiss Army Knife of technologies.

We use VMware to facilitate our hardware consolidation and help keep our operating expenses low. It is not uncommon to use it to host over 32 independent [Linux and Windows] servers on a single hardware platform while exceeding SLA (service level agreement) goals. Using VMotion technology, not only can we provide literally zero downtime, but have a very simple method of complete disaster recovery when tied into SAN (storage area network) capabilities.

We also use VMware to facilitate change management. With its rollback capabilities, we can literally perform high risk changes and always know that with a simple click of a button, we can revert the entire environment back in seconds. Does VMware have any shortcomings? What features would you put on your wish list for VMware?
We are hoping VMware will take it to the next level by providing real-time predictive failure and automated resumption of key services. This is to say that, in the event of hardware/software failure on a VM host server, there would be the capability to dynamically shift VMs to more stable and solid hosts while the host in question is examined and repaired. We also are looking to VMware to help expand on their current offerings and provide even higher-scaled solutions: quad processors SMP; larger hosts and scalability; and better SAN and DR (disaster recovery) support. Have you explored using other virtualization products and technologies?
We have looked at many other technologies and concepts and will continue to do so. In fact, we also use other competing technologies where we feel they provide a better fit. For example, we use the Microsoft Virtual Server in parallel to our VMware solutions. Virtual Server is used for mostly development purposes given its low costs and ease of use. VMware ESX we found to be much more suited for true enterprise computing, so we have standardized on VMware because of its product maturity, OS flexibility and SAN/blade integration.

Continue on to part 2, where Mike Bedford discusses Linux versus Windows, open source and VMware in development and the ROI of virtualization.

Dig deeper on Linux management and configuration

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