It's hard to make do with an IT system that your business has outgrown. The inevitable slowdowns will irritate even the most patient employees. Worse, you know things are unlikely to get better without intervention. We reveal how one online retailer reaped the benefits of moving to a virtual server system
Paddy Devine is ICT infrastructure manager for Chain Reaction Cycles, a Northern Ireland-based online bike store that's grown from a family-run shop into one of the world's biggest online cycle retailers.
While it's true that the business isn't so small any more, the rapid expansion means Chain Reaction Cycles has faced many of the same challenges that fast-growing start-ups encounter.
We asked Paddy to explain how the virtual server benefits he identified.
Virtual server benefits: no more sweating servers
Network servers have a longer lifetime than many pieces of IT kit. Most businesses expect them to last five years or so - and some make them last much longer. However, each server has only so much capacity, so a growing company can soon hit the limits.
It's a situation Paddy is familiar with: "We had a collection of old servers that needed replacing. We were growing fast, hitting capacity all the time." The company was relying on these workhorses to provide a range of crucial business applications, including its email system and file storage.
"None of the applications were running as well as they could." continues Paddy, explaining how issues with one app could cause wider disruption: "If one had a problem then we usually had to reboot the server, which would affect all the others too."
A new way to think of servers
Paddy was keen to find a more reliable way to run these important applications. One option was to give each its own server. Reliable, yes ? but this would leave some servers running at a fraction of their overall capacity, wasting computing power and electricity while sitting idle.
The key was to find a way to use servers efficiently, while ensuring apps didn't interfere with each other. And the solution was to set up a virtual server system. This technology uses special software to sub-divide the computing resources of a single physical server into a number of virtual servers.
Each virtual server functions just like a separate server. This meant Chain Reaction Cycles could run each app on its own virtual server, where it wouldn't interfere with any others.
Virtualisation doesn't increase the overall amount of computing power available. That's still dependent on the server hardware. But it does help you use that hardware more effectively, making it easier to use a single physical server for several different things.
"For us, virtual servers have lots of benefits," confirms Paddy. "The technology has been around a number of years and is well proven."
Finding the right option
Once Paddy had established virtualisation was the right technology for Chain Reaction Cycles, he was keen to find a dependable supplier. "We have limited IT resources in-house," he explained, "so the new system needed to be easy to manage without too much in-depth knowledge. We wanted to make sure we had good support."
"We went out to a number of suppliers with an invitation to tender. Of all the proposals we received, Dell's was the most cost-effective, although that wasn't the only factor. Because they were already a supplier of ours, we had experience of their service."
Paddy made sure they worked closely with Dell: "We had a one-day workshop together. We'd already discussed the bones of the system, but we had to nail down the details.
"We needed to set objectives and agree exactly what it would look like." They settled on a system that uses VMware software to create virtual servers.
"After that, we implemented the system. Dell came on site for a week. They built the infrastructure - servers, networking and so on. One of our guys sat with them to learn while they built it. We did some training too, to make sure we were confident working with everything."
Virtual server benefits: reliability and flexibility
"We've virtualised our management information system, our email system, our file storage and print servers," continues Paddy. "We run all new applications on a virtual platform too, but as we don't want to put all our eggs in one basket we keep backups separate."
The virtual servers have delivered big benefits to the company's IT system. "For our end-users the changes are invisible. But the number of support calls and faults has dropped enormously.
"Things are much more flexible now, too. For instance, we had to deploy a new email management system a few months ago. Previously we'd have had to buy a server and then get it installed. But virtualisation allows us to do it in an hour ? we just have to switch on an extra virtual server."
"Before, our servers couldn't cope with people loading more and more programs on. But now the software manages the load for us."
An easier way to expand
Shifting to virtualisation should make it easier to expand the company's IT systems in future, too. "This is a building block," explains Paddy. "Every aspect of the environment is scalable. We can add more storage and more memory whenever we need to." As Chain Reaction Cycles is still growing quickly, that's important.
"A few years ago smaller companies wouldn't have been able to afford that kind of system," he concludes. "But nowadays you can get it all taken care of."