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Consolidate or... what?

Should you really be concerned about server consolidation?

You know by now that server consolidation is a big buzzword and you're probably thinking that you better do it or...

Or what? Is this really something that you should be concerned about? Do you have to consolidate servers, or can you continue muddling on with the raft of servers you have?

Good questions, and they deserve some well-considered answers. So here they are.

You may, but you don't have to. You may not even want to. And whether you do or not depends on a host of variables, mostly on the economics of the issue. But when you think about the economics, there are a lot of considerations that you have to keep in mind.

The J.R. Simplot Co., in Boise, Idaho, recently consolidated its servers, saving "about 100 servers, so far, with eliminating servers and with not buying servers [that we otherwise would have]," said Tony Adams, a technology analyst for the company.

Why did Simplot do it? "The bottom line is," Adams said, "does it make economic sense to do it. If you can pare down to fewer servers and save money, then it makes sense. There are many costs associated with multiple servers."

For example, Adams listed the infrastructure costs, such as electricity and air conditioning, that go down when you reduce the number of servers that you're running. But he is more insistent on the costs of maintenance for the hardware you're running. "If you have older machines, [the vendors] have a sliding scale on the availability of supplies and the response times of repair persons." He noted that controllers are wont to stop working, but "we've had go out for various reasons." He also said that at one point the power supplies on one model of a widely deployed server were failing fairly regularly.

This can cost money, and a lot of it, depending on how many servers you're running, their age and the vendor. "On older machines," Adams said, "they really start sticking it to you."

So there is a case to be made for server consolidation. Save money on maintenance, electricity, air conditioning, plain old space, on cabling, on... did we mention management?

"[Consolidating servers] simplifies management, reduces cost and provides better security," said Bill Claybrook, president of New River Marketing Research, a company that offers research results on using Linux in the enterprise.

Whether you want to consolidate servers, and how you should do it, are "very situational," he said. "There are a few criteria. The main theme is to lower cost, improve productivity and/or move to new technology."

One reason to consolidate servers might be to increase the number of applications on the platform. "For example, the utilization of Unix servers is about 20%," Claybrook said. "That's pretty pathetic. With consolidation, you can improve that utilization."

While the cost savings seem obvious, the management might not. But with a cluster of Linux boxes, you can manage the cluster as though it were a single server. This is easier than trying to manage many servers as standalone boxes. Just imaging the KVM boxes you wouldn't need, for example.

So if this all sounds pretty good to you, how do you go about it? There are really two ways to do it. Replace a bunch of servers with a smaller bunch, or go to a bigger box, like a more capable server. IBM, not surprisingly, favors the latter approach.

Guy Paradise is an IBM product manager for the company's iSeries servers. That's the box that can run several different operating systems under its OS/400 software, so you can run Windows or Linux in different partitions to consolidate servers. "For the most part," Paradise said, "our customers run a single OS with multiple applications on one server. Our core market is small and medium businesses (100 to 1,000 employees) and that market has evolved into multiple servers, and that's a bit tough to manage."

So with the iSeries server, users can partition memory so that they get 10 partitions per processor, Paradise said. This enables customers to manage the entire operation from a single point, do backup and restore more efficiently, and allocate more storage to a process, if necessary. And there is the capability to share processors dynamically, so if one load is bogging down, then you can bring more resources to bear. "You get improved efficiency and system utilization, and less complexity," Paradise said.

Claybrook said you can do the same with Linux clusters, first developed for high-performance computing, but now appearing in the enterprise. "Linux clusters are going to mission-critical applications," he said. "There's nothing to prevent it."

Adams is accomplishing the same with VMware, an operating system that runs on Intel processors and allows for partitioning the memory there as well. "I can partition a server into more than 16 virtual machines, and each one thinks it's a standalone machine," he said. "It's like mainframe virtualization on an Intel machine."

How you go about consolidating depends a lot on what you have, and how much you can spend. A large box is comparatively expensive. Small Intel servers are less so, but you have to have them already, or you could spend a lot of money. And you have to decide if your applications will run efficiently on the new hardware you're thinking of buying. Moreover, do you have the Linux expertise in-house to run a bunch of Linux servers? If so, do you have the Windows expertise to run Windows server apps?

Cutting down the number of servers you have in the shop can really save you money and time, and improve the efficiency of your shop. If you are thinking you should do it, you need to consider carefully how to go about it. Make the right decision, and you'll be a happy camper.

About the author:
David Gabel has been testing and writing about computers for more than 25 years.

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