The task seemed overwhelming at times for the IT pros in the U.S. Army Reserve's 108th Division. Five administrators were responsible for supporting 3,300 systems in 23 locations -- with one server at each site -- across more than 200,000 square miles.
Duties as basic as backup proved nearly impossible, said William Bailey, a network manager for CIBER Inc., a consulting firm the Army hired to develop and support the division's network operations. Consolidation was the only practical solution.
The 108th decided to consolidate its 23 Windows NT servers into eight Windows 2003 Servers running Windows Storage Server 2003.
The payback came quickly. The reduced labor to manage the servers alone saved the Army $70,000 in the project's first six months. "In the months since then, we have continued to experience the same level of savings," Bailey added.
Down with surplus servers
Because servers are cheap and easy to deploy, they tend to proliferate quickly. Some companies, however, are realizing that there is a downside to having an overabundance of servers.
"Companies are experiencing low utilization of servers, often as low as 25%," says Judith Hurwitz, president, Hurwitz & Associates, Waltham, Mass. And that drives up the total cost of ownership (TCO).
The high TCO becomes apparent after the servers are acquired. Each server requires attentive care and feeding; each must be configured, secured, monitored, patched, tuned and backed up, all of which requires time and labor. And when you realize that only a small amount of each server's capability is actually being used, the TCO when adjusted for actual utilization just soars, Hurwitz pointed out.
Companies, therefore, are turning to consolidation in an effort to boost utilization and lower the TCO. In addition to consolidating multiple servers into fewer but more powerful servers, they also are looking to consolidate the storage previously attached to each server into pools of shared storage accessible over the network. Although there is no firm rule of thumb for consolidation, it generally doesn't make much sense with less than 10 to 12 servers, Hurwitz said.
"It is not efficient and at some point not even practical to keep adding disks to servers," said Michael Cherry, lead analyst for Windows and mobile computing at Directions on Microsoft, an independent group based in Kirkland, Wash., that tracks the software giant.
That point becomes clear when the organization has to add another person just to handle storage administration. Consolidating storage through network-attached storage (NAS) or storage-area networks (SANs) allows fewer people to handle substantially more storage, which drives down the TCO.
Controlled consolidation preserves bandwidth
How much consolidation an organization can achieve depends on various constraints. For the Army, "our big issue was bandwidth," Bailey said. The more servers it consolidated, the more traffic had to cross the network to access the servers, which required more bandwidth.
In other cases, organizational issues relating to security, availability, performance and geography dictate how much consolidation is practical. An organization, for example, may decide that an application or data should be isolated on a dedicated server for security reasons.
System management tools make it easier to measure use and performance and identify duplicated or unused applications and files, which facilitate the planning for a consolidation initiative. Hurwitz advises companies to start small by consolidating a few obvious server candidates -- those running noncritical applications with low utilization -- and then expand the effort from there.
Bear in mind that server consolidation presents some challenges, and the benefits are not guaranteed. Corporate politics, for instance, may prevent some consolidation. Consolidation also requires more skilled server configuration and tuning, especially if different workloads are being consolidated. Network bandwidth can become a bottleneck, and the potential for short-term disruption is great, especially if the consolidation is not well planned in advance.
"If your systems aren't well managed to begin with, consolidation will not be a panacea," Cherry said.
Alan Radding is a freelance writer specializing in business and technology. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, http://www.technologywriter.com.