Grow Financial Gets Memory Boost With Virtualization
Even in the virtual world, you can run out of real memory.
That was the case at the $1.8 billion Grow Financial Federal Credit Union in Tampa, Fla., where its technologists recently completed a revamp of its virtual data center.
Grow Financial worked with Syscom Technologies and Dell to design and deploy a new information technology infrastructure that it said has reduced costs for maintenance and licensing while sharply increasing its storage capacity.
The heart of the project involved reducing the number of servers running the VMware vSphere virtualization system, from six Dell PowerEdge 2950 machines to four PowerEdge R720 rack-mounted servers.
“We easily could have gone with just two but we had to maintain a physical separation between our Internet facing sites and our internal sites for security reasons,” said James Stock, assistant vice president of network services at Grow Financial.
“In other words, we don’t have any machines with people specifically accessing from the inside that shares the same virtual infrastructure as those machines that people are hitting from the outside. That contains how vulnerable we could be if someone were to compromise one of the servers,” Stock said.
There also is far more storage capacity to handle the growing cyber mountain of data stored at Grow Financial.
“We began our virtualization project in 2007 with 70 machines and grew to 14 servers supporting those, and we ended up with five more at our disaster recovery facility. And we still got to the point where our memory capacity was just too limited,” Stock said.
Now, there are 160 virtual machines being supported by a total of nine servers – seven on the production side and two at the disaster recovery center, Stock said.
The data center also includes Dell Compellent storage arrays and a Dell KACE K1000 virtual management appliance that is used for help desk ticket tracking, change management and automating software development.
The credit union said it is now seeing a 50% decrease in its storage maintenance costs and a 30% increase in storage performance over the EMC storage array the Dell Compellent storage arrays have replaced. Less servers and software also means lower licensing costs.
“We’re also using less power and we’re saving a lot of money on how much we have to spend on updated 10g connectivity, because the fewer connections you have to have, the better,” Stock said. “We just don’t have to spend as much on switching points to keep our [storage access network] up and running” across its network of 18 branches, data center and offsite backup facility.
Working with Stock as Grow Financial moves into what he calls the credit union’s second generation of virtualization, are three help desk technicians, a senior network engineer, senior network administrator, a backup administrator and two telecommunications systems engineers.
In addition to not having to hire an another IT staffer to handle the increased demands, the new tools have stopped the trend of adding more equipment – including bulky 15K fast drives –that simply took up more space as the credit union kept growing, Stock said.
“We’re using thin provisioning now in a virtual environment, so we can tell the system how much space we want the server to see, and we’re not paying for storage space we’re not actually using yet,” Stock said.
And of perhaps particular importance in a hurricane-prone area like south-central Florida, Grow Financial is taking advantage of the enhancements a virtual environment adds to the existing traditional disk-based disaster recovery and business continuity solutions.
“Our disaster recovery has improved tremendously from a couple of years ago,” Stock said. “Before, you had to recover files, you had to go to the backup tape and pull the server and recover all that and it could take a day or even days. Now, you just tell the virtual system that it’s running off a backup copy and it goes right to the snapshots the virtual system has been taking of the files.”
Some of the systems, such as the Web servers, are taking snapshots every two hours, while most are taken every night at midnight, Stock said, adding that there are now several layers of recoverability.
Such capacity is critical in major emergencies or day-to-day crises, like an FTP server going rogue and deleting log files.
“We just stop it, look at the last snapshot and get it up and running in 15 minutes. That’s what we can do now,” Stock said.
The biggest problem in the new deployment was one of the hazards of going first. Just like the simplest of desktop printers, high-end servers need software drivers to make the hardware do what it’s told, and there were bugs to work out.
“Dell announced the 720 servers in February and they hit the floors in April and we were one of the first adopters,” Stock said, noting “and every now and then, one of the drivers would flake out and not be quite right. That was in the first ones we installed. After we got through that, we’d just deprovision the old equipment, put the new one in and away we went.”
Grow Financial is also saving time and money now with a new managed file transfer solution, Stock said. The MFT solution from Attunity Ltd. of Boston provides an audit trail and inbound virus scanning while eliminating the need for closely managing and manually executing file exchanges, notifications and other communications.
Stock said the solution is saving about 20 hours a month in labor by automating all mission-critical file transfer processes and eliminating the need to manually download files after business hour.