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How one school district adopted virtual Exchange 2010

Virtual Exchange 2010 reaps huge rewards for one school district, increasing confidence in the system while streamlining IT processes.

Virtualization discussions often involve large IT organizations looking to consolidate hundreds or even thousands of servers. But server virtualization and consolidation aren’t just for the rich and famous. Smaller IT shops also benefit from the flexibility and resilience that a virtual environment provides. And given the ready availability of modern hypervisors, a smaller shop can adopt virtualization and reap the benefits in a cost-effective manner, even with demanding workloads, such as from a virtual Exchange 2010 server.

Hinsdale Township High School District 86 in Hinsdale, Ill., faced enormous budget pressure, just like every other municipal group across the nation. But its particular challenge was that the cost benefit of the district’s hardware refresh wasn’t particularly compelling.

“We’ve been on a three-year maintenance schedule for our servers, and that’s a big expense every three years,” said Tim Hohman, the district’s director of technology. “I’m getting rid of hardware that really isn’t out of date, but I just can’t take a chance on it failing.”

Hohman turned to virtualization to extend the district’s refresh cycle while improving workload flexibility, load balancing and availability. Although availability might seem like an onerous consideration for a fairly small shop, the need to support a broad user base of 500 staff members and 4,500 students was a vital issue -- especially for the district's virtual Exchange 2010 Server platform.

As a Windows server shop with numerous Windows applications, such as Microsoft SharePoint, Exchange and SQL Server, the adoption of Hyper-V seemed like a natural extension of the paradigm.

"I wanted everything to work together," Hohman said. He also noted that he adopted Microsoft's System Center Virtual Machine Manager as his current virtual machine (VM) management platform, but he's looking into System Center Operations Manager as a potential upgrade.

Virtualization allowed the district to avoid purchasing new servers. Instead, Hohman repurposed existing VMs that were added to the Hyper-V farm. The Exchange Server 2010 environment was built with the assistance of virtualization consultants Peters and Associates Inc. at the end of the school year, and it coexisted with the previous Exchange Server 2007 environment. The Exchange 2010 virtual deployment ultimately involved two mailbox server and two Client Access server instances spread across different physical host servers, along with a third Exchange mailbox server virtualized off-site as a backup.

Toward the end of the school year, Hohman moved over a small group of users for some live testing and refinement and then used the school’s summer break to move all of the remaining users.

"The users were migrated over a weekend," he said. "But the whole virtualization process took about two months."

After the move to virtual Exchange 2010

The transition to a virtual Exchange 2010 was for the most part error-free, but the architecture and distribution of the Exchange role VMs did present an unexpected glitch.

I just feel more secure knowing [that] the way we have this configured … and we won't need to babysit it and worry about hardware failures.

Tim Hohman, director of technology, Hinsdale Township High School District 86

"The Client Access servers had a problem if they were not running on the same switch," Hohman said. This issue slightly limited flexibility as the VMs are assigned to physical servers. However, the district added a fifth server to the Hyper-V farm as another potential host, and Hohman said he’s confident that future operating system upgrades will address that wrinkle.

In the meantime, the move to virtualization and the virtual Exchange 2010 deployment has given Hohman more faith in the environment.

"I just feel more secure knowing [that] the way we have this configured, it's going to be reliable, it's going to have uptime, and we won't need to babysit it and worry about hardware failures."

Considering that the environment started with two virtualized servers, then two more were added and then a fifth, Hohman said he’s also pleased with the scalability of a virtual environment.

With the virtual Exchange 2010 process now complete, Hohman said he’s contemplating numerous other virtualization projects. One near-term goal is to virtualize the district's three domain controllers: a root domain controller, one controller for staff and one for students. Prior efforts to virtualize the domain controllers were problematic, therefore, the virtualization controllers were reverted to physical servers until performance issues are resolved. Beyond that project, Hohman said he hopes to virtualize other demanding applications, such as SharePoint

Stephen J. Bigelow, a senior technology writer in the Data Center and Virtualization Media Group at TechTarget Inc., has more than 15 years of technical writing experience in the PC/technology industry. He holds a bachelor of science in electrical engineering, along with CompTIA A+, Network+, Security+ and Server+ certifications, and has written hundreds of articles and more than 15 feature books on computer troubleshooting, including Bigelow's PC Hardware Desk Reference and Bigelow's PC Hardware Annoyances. Contact him at sbigelow@techtarget.com.

This was last published in May 2011

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