Virtualisation again. Just to remind you if you’re still not up with it, virtualisation is shorthand for replacing your bank of network servers with just a few, more powerful ones, each housing a number of virtual servers. And why has it suddenly become a talking point? Because although the principle’s been around for a while, it’s become both easier and cheaper with the advent of Windows Server 2008 R2 Hyper-V.

I’ve already mentioned the Lodge Park College Hyper-V virtualisation project, and also the £90,000 that Wootton Basset school will save with virtualisation – big money saving, and much more efficient. Now I’m hearing about other schools going down the same route. One is our old friend West Hatch School in Essex, one of the Windows 7 early adopters, last Summer Holidays (in fact, the first in Europe to deploy the released version of Windows 7)

Leading the West Hatch virtualisation project is Information Systems Manager Alan Richards. Everything Alan’s done since he arrived in May 2008 has been meticulously thought out, and it’s not surprising that before he considered virtualisation, he decided to get the network itself right.

 

We’ve rebuilt the whole network, wired and wireless, from scratch with new fibre-optic and network cabling and a managed wireless solution. The school wants to move forward, but with the network as it was it was never going to happen. It would have been like running a Formula 1 car on a gravel track. You’ve got to have basic infrastructure.

Then, that work done over the Summer term 2009, Alan turned his attention to the servers.

As at Lodge Park, Alan will reduce the number of servers in the server room, in his case from 24 to 9, five of which will run the Windows Server 2008 R2 Hyper-V virtualised environment (that’s a mouthful!). Each server is more powerful and so more expensive than the ones it replaces, but there are still clear savings by reducing by 15 servers, not only on capital expenditure but on maintenance and electricity – the electricity bill alone should come down by £4,000 a year.

Savings are important, but Alan’s also interested in the gains in reliability and efficiency.

At the moment if a server has a fault, that service it provides ceases to function for the whole school

 

A virtualised server system, though, has a clever way of dealing with breakdowns. If a virtual server, or even a whole physical server fails, it instantly hands over its work to another part of the system. The rest of the school doesn’t even notice.

But to get these benefits, you have to do the installation properly. First, you need to know how many new servers you’ll need, and that’s not straightforward because you want built-in redundancy – and expandability because even in the short term, the demands on a school’s network are always going to increase.

“You can’t just pluck the answer out of the air,” says Alan. “You have to sit down and work it out.”

Then, you have to work out how the virtual servers are going to be distributed among the new physical servers so none has more than its fair share of work.

“ You could take a wild guess, or do a *** packet estimate,” says Alan. But somehow you know he’s not the *** packet type.

“I’ve got performance logs running on the network that will give me the definite answers,” he says.

At the moment, the new hardware’s arriving, and installation and testing will begin. It’ll take some time – two or three months – but you can put money on it being right, providing a better working environment for staff and students.

I’m going to follow Alan’s progress, and I’ve asked him if he’ll share some of his experiences – peaks and troughs – and any advice that will help other schools to learn from his journey.

imageYou can read Alan’s posts on the learninggateway.net blog that he shares with Alex Pearce