Dealing With Server Sprawl

from the consolidation-vs-dedication dept

Of all the trends I have witnessed in my 10 years of being a network administrator/manager, the one that has seen little if no argument, is the need to reduce server sprawl. When your average server was once in the 4U to 6U range, the amount of rack space and cooling needs quickly got out of control. It was common to only have 4 to 6 servers in your standard 19-inch rack. These racks themselves could cost upwards of $1000, and then there were the KVM needs, maintenance on each physical box, etc. We all know/remember the pain points. Although, as an admin, it was impressive to show off 10 racks full of servers with blinking LED’s (as long as they were all green!). But once that equipment aged and caused additional support headaches, we all wanted nothing more than to reduce the “head count”.

So started the consolidation initiative. Consolidating file and print servers was easy. Throw more horsepower in a single box, and you could put more into it. You could even knock down some database servers that way. So, what were the real challenges? The insistence from application vendors to have dedicated systems for their apps. Seems like every app my company purchased meant 2 more servers (app + db). I know this was probably my biggest fight. A fight that I escalated all the way up to the CIO. So we started insisting to vendors that we would not accept this as a requirement. We probably turned away some really decent applications because of vendors who wouldn’t accept their app living on shared systems. And then there were existing apps that we just migrated to shared systems, and I can tell you that doing that caused some support nightmares.

When virtualization and blade servers came on the scene, or should I say came down in price and went up in dependability, we saw drastic declines in space requirements, cooling needs, power consumption, etc. Between virtual servers and blades, I have roughly 100 servers housed in my first 2 racks. And that includes the storage and fiber switches. My general rule of deploying new servers is virtual first, blade second, and stand alone as a last resort if deemed necessary. What I didn’t give immediate thought to was reviewing my stance on the above mentioned practice of consolidating my app servers, even if it was against the vendor’s requirements.

Now I’m not saying that it’s a good practice to separate every single app, database, or infrastructure server. Many vendors (because of customer’s insistence) fully support their apps running on shared systems now, and I do that whenever it is supported and causes no issues. There is still OS license and maintenance costs for each server instance. And of course each one has to be maintained, secured, patched, etc. even if it is virtual. But what I am saying is that virtualization and blade servers have given me the ability to add dedicated systems with little or no impact on some of the previous pain points. If there is ROI in deploying an app, or just a definitive need, I don’t hesitate in provisioning a dedicated system for it, if it is required. Doing so has helped tremendously in application support from the vendor, maintenance windows (which did not always coincide when running multiple apps on one box), and it keeps one rogue application from taking down 2 or 3 others. Again, I am not promoting server sprawl, but rather recommending that returning to dedicated application systems in certain circumstances, is not as painful with the newer technologies available to us.

I would be interested in hearing how other admins feel on the subject.

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Comments on “Dealing With Server Sprawl”

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David Deans (profile) says:

No Such Thing as One-size-fits-all IT Solutions

Todd, anyone who says they have one IT infrastructure deployment solution to every application requirement is either uniformed or simply lazy.

The server virtualization trend is based-upon valid return on investment metrics, but I do see your point. Any intelligent decision making process should extend beyond a lowest common denominator, and consider all viable options.

Therefore, I’m curious, is there a checklist that you use to make the appropriate resource selection? Also, is an out-tasked managed cloud service option going to be part of that selection process?

David Deans –
Business Technology Roundtable

David Deans (user link) says:

Michael, to clarify, I wasn’t suggesting that Todd wanted a one-size solution to everything (clearly, he doesn’t), I was merely commenting on a related point that occurred to me — after considering the points that he made.

That being, does his selection of the best-fit solution for the job at hand include out-tasked managed cloud services? If so, then how does he make that determination — that one solution is better than the alternatives?

Todd DiGirolamo (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I certainly take out-tasked hosted solutions in consideration whenever offered. I am actually looking into that route with Exchange 2010. And who doesn’t want less to manage? 🙂

While I don’t have a formal checklist for resource allocation, or deciding on hosted versus in house, I have several things I consider with each system I have to provision. Vendor requirements often drive the decision on where apps land. I got a requirement today for a system that needs to be scalable to 16 cores and 128 GB of RAM for just one app (crazy, huh?). This obviously drives it out of the virtualization realm, and possibly blade servers as well. They do offer to scale out with multiple smaller systems instead of scaling up, but I’d prefer up with this vendor (not our first app with them).

When it comes to out-tasking, I look at costs for the services first. Some vendors gouge customers, since so many run thin and take that option every time possible. Then I look at my current staff situation and what SLA is being required. My company has been on a hiring freeze for some time now, replacements included, so I have to watch staffing situations carefully. An SLA example would be a Federal Trade Zone application for deferring taxes on imported items while in stock, prior to sales. Timing of entries is critical and federally mandated. The vendor offered attractive pricing for hosting, so that left me with just making sure the agents had reliable internet access to get to the app.

So, not the most formal of approaches, but thought is put into every solution.

Hope that helps.

Mac McConnell (profile) says:

Virtual Machine Sprawl

Todd, what is your experience with virtual machine (VM) sprawl? Many of the companies I talk to have quietly said that virtualization, and the powerful and thin servers that support it, are both a blessing and curse.

Network admins were able to slow the proliferation of apps across a company simply due to power, space, cooling, or support constraints. Now any business manager who feels it necessary to bring in a new app (and can find the money to pay for it) expects IT to immediately provision a new virtual machine. Another comment I hear regularly it that there are test environments (via VM) all over the place. Sometimes even on production systems.

If you have run into this do you have any recommendations for keeping VM sprawl at bay?

Come to think of it, this isn’t just for Todd. Are others seeing a problem with VM sprawl and what have you done abut it?

Mac McConnell
Sun Microsystems

Greg O'Keefe - Intel (profile) says:

Physical & Virtual Machine Sprawl

Virtual Machine Sprawl is becoming what Physical Machine Sprawl was a few years ago when everyone thought that VM’s were the answer to phsyical machine sprawl. The VM solution is now creating new challenges for efficiency & management.

Its all about what is right for each datacenter’s needs – there are tons of great tools out in the market to help make informed decisions. For example take a look at the Sun/Intel x86 Server Refresh ( that allows for physical & virtual consolidation ROI scenarios from older x86 servers to new Sun servers.

Greg O’Keefe
Intel Corporation

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