Magazine Article | June 1, 2003

Stop Server Sprawl

Source: Field Technologies Magazine

By expanding its data center and implementing a KVM (keyboard, video, mouse) over IP (Internet Protocol) solution, healthcare provider Gwinnett Health System was able to consolidate its servers and manage them remotely from any console attached to its network.

Integrated Solutions, June 2003

Sometimes it's easier to tackle the here-and-now problems that face us without taking into consideration any long-term ramifications. If you need to clean the house, for instance, you might put off sorting through the mail and instead shove it all into a drawer ... or a bag ... or a closet. Whatever the case may be, it's out of sight and out of mind. The immediate outcome is that the house is cleaned up in time for out-of-town guests. But, the long-term consequence is that you miss a bill due date or sending an RSVP on time.

The Shortsighted Server Solution
Gwinnett Health System (GHS) (Lawrenceville, GA), a not-for-profit healthcare network that comprises three hospitals, more than 3,700 employees, and approximately 700 affiliated physicians, was treating its servers like most of us treat a stack of mail that's cluttering up the house. The healthcare organization put its servers in just about every place it could find - including offices and closets on every floor of its three hospitals. The benefit was that new applications were deployed quicker and the IT administrators were credited for quick turnaround times. On the downside, however, a severe case of server sprawl made it impossible for the six-man IT administration team to properly monitor all the servers. The real showstopper came in August 2002 when Rick Allen, GHS' director of IS (information systems) operations, was told that the healthcare organization wanted to integrate several departmental solutions (e.g. radiology and respiratory therapy group) over the next 12 months. Additionally, GHS wanted to add a new pharmacy service solution and a PACS (picture archiving and communications system) to its IT repertoire. "We couldn't accommodate the projected growth in new applications with our servers spread out among our facilities," recalls Allen. Unlike junk mail that can be tossed in the garbage, each of GHS' servers were necessary. In fact, more servers were needed, and all servers needed to be relocated to a single data center in order to free up each IT administrator's time. "We work in a very space-constrained environment," says Allen. "Our original data center was only 10-feet by 14-feet. We had a KVM [keyboard, video, mouse] solution in place, but it required one console for every four servers."

The 4-to-1 server to console ratio couldn't be maintained for all the servers. Since KVM cables are approximately three feet in length, all the servers, KVM switches, and consoles had to be within three feet of one another. This meant that servers placed in closets or offices required their own consoles.

KVM Over IP To The Rescue
GHS' four-part fix began in November 2002. The first step was to knock out a couple walls, and convert two adjoining offices into a data center expansion. Next, additional plugs had to be added to the new 22-feet by 24-feet data center to avoid plugging multiple power strips together and overloading outlets with too many servers.

Allen then discovered KVM over IP (Internet Protocol), which promised to not only significantly reduce the number of consoles required to manage servers but offered other benefits such as remote troubleshooting and simultaneous access to servers from multiple consoles. Allen did further research into the solution and discovered other hospitals had successfully deployed KVM over IP solutions. With this assurance, Allen purchased Avocent's (Huntsville, AL) KVM over IP solution in November 2002. The solution comprises three components - six DSR2161 switches, a CPS800 telnet server, and Avocent's DSView application, which is installed on each console that is used to access the servers. "It was an easy installation with only a couple configuration changes needed," recalls Allen. "First, we synchronized the mouse acceleration speeds of the KVM with the local PCs. This was accomplished by slowing down the mouse on the server. Then, we created a workaround for our eight HP 9000 servers, which did not have the plugs required for the KVM connections." To accomplish its workaround, GHS purchased a CPS (central processing system) switch, which allows the eight HP 9000 servers to be joined together and accessed from a single console.

With its KVM over IP solution in place, GHS was able to eliminate 90% of its consoles and significantly boost its server-to-console ratio. Another benefit of the solution was that the servers and consoles were no longer restricted to a 3-feet-only tether. "We were able to remove 24 consoles from our data center, which in itself gave us much more server room," says Allen. "Additionally, the KVM over IP solution enabled us to rack-mount the servers in standard 19-inch server racks." With its four-part fix in place, GHS has enough room for each of its 92 servers, plus it has room for another two, 42U (each U equals 1.75") server racks.

Internet-Enabled KVM Provides Remote Access
With its servers now located in a central location, GHS' IT administrators are able to consistently monitor and troubleshoot servers as well as perform other duties such as integrate applications without the need to hire more IT administrators. Because the KVM solution is attached to GHS' 100BaseT Ethernet (which can transfer data at a rate of 100 megabits per second) network, IT administrators can log on to the servers from any PC located at any of the three hospitals and perform functions such as troubleshooting tasks (e.g. rebooting the server) or installing new software upgrades. And, because part of the KVM over IP solution includes a telnet server, IT administrators can log on to the servers from home if there is a problem instead of having to drive to the data center.

Server Consolidation And Storage Consolidation Go Hand In Hand
With its new applications and integration projects underway, GHS anticipated growing data needs. Shortly after its server consolidation project, GHS rolled out a SAN (storage area network) to be able to pool its storage resources. "Currently, we've attached only the most recent application servers to our SAN," says Allen. "These application servers run applications such as our PACS, our new pharmacy application, and our fetal monitoring system." When it first rolled out its SAN in December 2002, GHS was managing about 1.7 TB of storage. A few months later, the healthcare provider added another 1.7 TB of capacity to be able to accommodate more servers. Presently, GHS is in the process of adding an additional 5.1 TB of storage to its repertoire. "We started out with seven servers attached to the SAN, we added three more servers in May 2003, and we plan to add several more servers in the coming year," says Allen. GHS uses RAID (redundant array of independent disks) 5 storage boxes to store its data and Management Appliance software from HP StorageWorks to manage the storage on its SAN. Down the road, the healthcare organization is considering adding a software package such as HP's Openview Storage Manager, which will enable IT administrators to manage RAID systems similarly to the way its servers are managed with the KVM over IP solution.

Remote Server Access Is Good ... Wireless Remote Access Is Better
Now that GHS has solved its server sprawl dilemma and is in the process of migrating many of its servers to a SAN environment, it has a complementary initiative underway. By the end of the year, GHS plans to roll out an 802.11b wireless LAN (WLAN) at each of its three facilities. The WLAN will enable IT administrators to use laptops or PDAs (personal digital assistants) to log on to and troubleshoot servers without having to find a desktop PC that has the KVM software installed on it. "Our IT administrators are often called into meetings and involved with a host of projects," says Allen. "Having access to servers from anywhere in the building will be a big plus."

In the world of IT, there are always projects that compete for your time. It's easy to let these projects build up and, like unopened mail, they can get shoved in a drawer and forgotten about until a crisis happens that forces you to have to deal with one or more problems right away. Each of these projects will eventually have to be solved. The important question is: Are you going to take a shortsighted IT approach that looks for a quick, temporary fix, or are you going to take a long-term approach that offers time savings and other benefits down the road?