For many midsize organisations in the downturn, yesterday’s laudable intentions to minimise their carbon footprint have been superseded by today’s more pressing need to cut overheads. But as Paul Curran discovers, when it comes to IT, it is still possible to go ‘green’ and watch the pennies too...

Cloud computing has been hailed as the saviour of many a cash-strapped organisation in today’s shaky economy, and rightly so. After all, it offers the very latest software, slicker communications and lower costs. Whilst often overshadowed by its headline-grabbing sibling, however, ‘virtualisation’ is a tool equally capable of bringing ‘green’ and cost-saving benefits to medium-sized businesses. The main distinction is that ‘cloud’ is an operations model, whereas virtualisation is a technology in its own right.

Virtualisation uses software to create virtual machines (VMs) that imitate a physical computer. By providing multiple VMs, you can run several operating systems and programs simultaneously on a single physical machine. So, rather than paying for lots of under-utilised servers each devoted to a specific task, virtualisation lets you group those workloads on a much smaller number of more fully-used machines. It’s the equivalent of owning one truck that’s permanently full, rather than ten trucks each delivering only partial loads. This yields a far better return on your hardware investment and saves further cash as it needs less management, consumes less energy and takes up far less space.

The need for high availability

Indeed, organisations who’ve virtualised their systems regularly report IT savings of 20% and upwards. One such organisation is Chester Zoo. Its responsibility for the wellbeing of thousands of animals makes high availability computing a top priority: researchers need constant access to data; zookeepers must keep careful records of the animals in their care; marketing staff need to communicate with the public; and administrators need to manage the facilities.

As a result, vast amounts of data were being stored on its servers, says the zoo’s IT Manager, Phillip Morris. “The more we added, the greater became our need for extra servers,” he says. “We became increasingly concerned about the cost of additional servers and the power required to run them. Moreover, if our servers were to go down, not only were our ticket and sales affected, but it would impact researchers and charitable groups around the world.”

Robust IT with a low carbon footprint

As you’d expect, too, as Chester Zoo’s goal is the conservation of wildlife, Morris says few organisations are more conscious of their green credentials. Like many midsize businesses in today’s austere economy, however, its ambitions of eco-friendliness have had to be balanced against the harsh reality of business survival - and that goes for IT too. He says virtualisation offered the ideal solution, providing a cost-effective and robust IT environment with a low carbon footprint.

Having attended a seminar on the technology of virtualisation, Morris invited Microsoft Gold Certified Partner Nviron to submit a proposal. “When I saw the way Hyper-V works within Windows Server 2008 R2 (R2) to allow live migration from one server to another, the decision was easy,” he says. “It’s not just a virtualisation solution, but an entire environment within which we can operate. Dedicated virtualisation products don’t offer all the extra pieces of software, like System Center Data Protection Manager, that come with R2,” he adds.

Morris is equally impressed by the implementation process. “We virtualised our whole accounting system within an hour,” he says. “Our users had no idea we were working on the system. That’s the beauty of live migration - IT staff can repair and maintain servers with no impact on users.”

Savings in power and cooling

As two-time winners of the Sustainable Development category in the Queen’s Award for Enterprise, Chester Zoo is clearly attracted to any technology that can help reduce its carbon footprint. “Vitualisation has enabled us to decrease our emissions substantially by reducing 30 physical servers down to four,” says Morris. “Thanks to Hyper-V, we’ve not only cut our investment in hardware, but also made around £11,000 in savings on electricity for power and cooling.”

As well as slashing costs, virtualisation brings operational benefits by making your IT setup more agile - for instance, by making software backup, business continuity, testing and development much more straightforward. Running virtual servers on R2 also ensures that vital information is protected. “Before virtualisation, the system was backed up every 12 hours, so we had the potential to lose a whole working day’s worth of data,” says Morris. “Now we have immediate backup at all times”.

Virtualisation also allows you to deploy new services faster and more economically, and since your IT no longer depends on individual dedicated servers, you can put new business ideas into practice using new software on existing hardware. You can trial new software on a virtualised server before you release it to your entire estate, thereby reducing risk, expense - and the load on your IT staff.

PCs too can be virtualised using Microsoft Application Virtualization 4.5 to run programs which are based on a central server, independently of their operating system. This increases the number of programs available to each desktop, reduces the total cost of ownership (TCO) of each PC across its lifecycle, and saves on software licensing costs.

It’s important to remember, though, that virtualising your servers doesn’t remove the need to manage them. System Center Essentials which includes a Virtual Machine Manager, is ideal for this purpose. Using a single console, it lets you manage a broad range of tasks across your physical and virtual servers, clients, hardware, software and IT services – offering hard-pressed IT managers one unified experience.

Taking a lesson from the cloud

A recent survey of 544 businesses across the UK, US, France and Germany indicates that 39.4% have already virtualised their servers. Ian Osborne, product director at technology trade association Intellect, is unsurprised by this statistic and says virtualisation is now a popular way of making more efficient use of IT resources while keeping costs under control. He says businesses have taken one of the lessons from the cloud and realised they can achieve that with in-house technology. “One of its big advantages is much better utilisation," he says. "Instead of eight to ten percent maybe on average, you can get up to 50% or 60% usage from a server, and it potentially gives you much more capacity than you thought you had. As firms switch off servers as a result of consolidating their work onto fewer machines, they will definitely use less power and cut their energy bills,” he says. Morris agrees: “Virtualisation has taken computing to new levels and R2 makes its benefits available to small and medium sized organisations. It means that anyone can now take advantage of the technology.”