How One City Slashed its Support Costs

Tired of spending loads of cash supporting remote workers? By adopting blade servers and Linux, a city in Norway beat their own financial goals, and are even able to keep their techies in out of the cold.
Posted October 7, 2005

Drew Robb

Drew Robb

Companies looking to cut their IT costs need to look beyond initial outlays and take a hard look at their support costs.

CIOs and administrators, for instance, might not notice how much it costs to support remote workers. Sending a technician to an offsite location can get expensive, as can dealing with a remote worker repeatedly over the phone or having equipment shipped back and forth between the remote and centralized office. Desktop emulators and remote diagnostic tools help, but don't eliminate the problem.

One approach to reducing support is to switch to network-centric computing. Rather than providing end users with complete workstations, give them thin client devices.

From a hardware viewpoint, this eliminates all the disk drives sitting under employees' desks and moves them into the data center. You no longer have to continually deploy all the software patches and virus signature updates, run backups and virus scans or defragment the drives.

So far, this idea hasn't really caught on, though, there have been some major deployments. Hitachi Ltd., for example, announced this past May that it was moving 16,000 of its employees to thin clients as a means of improving security.

The overall market for thin clients, however, according to IDC, an industry analyst firm based in Framingham, Mass., is only about 3 percent of the number of standard corporate workstations.

Eliminating Server Costs

Even without switching to thin clients, companies still can reduce their remote support load by eliminating local file and print servers.

Bergen, the second largest city in Norway, took this very same approach.

While IT administrators for the city still use fat clients for its 50,000 users, they have replaced 100 servers in its schools with a set of blade servers in the data center.

''The process has been very smooth, even better than we expected,'' says Chief Technology Officer Ole-Bjorn Tuftedal.

The City of Bergen has a population of 250,000. The city's IT staff services municipal government employees, eGov applications for its citizens and an educational network for 32,000 students and 4,000 teachers. It also supports 10,500 PCs -- 7,000 for city employees and 3,500 for students. The city network links 450 locations -- 125 of them via 100Mbps or 1Gbps fibre, and the rest via 1Mbps to 2Mbps ADSL connections. It also hosts services for some of the smaller communities in the region that don't have their own IT departments.

The educational network had at least one file/print/communications server running Windows NT at each of the city's 100 schools, and a central team of server specialists visited any location experiencing server problems -- a frequent occurrence. Designed and implemented in 1996, the aging network simply became too expensive to maintain.

''Disk, fan and power supply failures were common and system corruption by viruses and other problems meant engineers were faced with an ever-increasing workload,'' says Tuftedal. ''We had an amazing range of software versions and disk images, and a constant demand for human intervention.''

Rather than install new hardware on the same architecture, the city seized the opportunity to design something better. Tuftedal said he had four goals for the project: reducing high server costs caused by the high number of decentralized servers; improve security; simplify administration of clients and servers; and improve the user environment.

The job involved more than just replacing the servers, though. The city also decided to migrate to a Linux operating system.

''The city parliament decided in 2001 to consider using Linux and open source software for all new projects,'' Tuftedal explains. ''We have found Linux to be viable as an enterprise operating system in every way.''

The particular advantages, he says, are greater freedom of choice, lower costs because of vendor independence and ease of management.

''It has a multi-user architecture from top to bottom, whereas Windows has its roots as a single-user operating system,'' says Tuftedal. ''Linux has higher stability, less downtime, scales better and has better security.''

The remote servers themselves were replaced with 20 IBM HS20 blade servers. They chose IBM blades because they were the only ones available which had the full-server architecture on the blades. According to Tuftedal, other vendors were using a mobile PC architecture for their blades. To further simplify support, he ordered the blades without hard drives.

''The servers themselves have no moving parts at all,'' he says. ''All the things that typically fail in servers -- the fans, the disks, the power units -- are components for the whole blade enclosure, they are redundant, and you can change parts on the fly.''

Since they don't have their own hard drives, they boot off the IBM TotalStorage Enterprise Storage Server SAN, and all storage resides on the SAN. They have a 1GB Ethernet connection to the SAN and can switch to Fibre Channel if they need a faster connection. But even with Ethernet, he says, they can get the data faster than if they had onboard SCSI disks.

Beating Expectations

Bergen's IT professionals began switching the schools' system to the new datacenter servers last fall, migrating one location per day. By the end of the year, it had migrated all the schools which had fibre connections. The ones with ADSL took a bit longer since those required the use of thin clients because of a lack of bandwidth. The new blade servers host file, print, email, DNS, DHCP, a Samba server, OpenLDAP and Web services. They also can accommodate up to 6,000 concurrent users.

With the new system in place, users can log in on any computer at any school and always have their own desktop settings. The new system also has beaten the financial goals initially set out for it.

''When we made the designs for our school network we did two models -- one using Microsoft and one using Linux,'' says Tuftedal. ''In our design and test phase, we saw a 30 percent hardware savings on the same blades, running the same jobs. In practice, those figures have been fulfilled and even bettered.''

And that doesn't include the cost of sending out IT staff on freezing winter days, when the sun doesn't show its face till nearly 10 a.m. and is gone by mid-afternoon.

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