Counties have many reasons to consolidate -- enhanced efficiency, reduced operational costs and easier-to-manage infrastructures -- especially when they're as large as Fulton County, Ga., which includes the city of Atlanta. According to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau data, the county is home to nearly 1 million residents. The county's Department of Information Technology (DOIT) undertook an enterprise server consolidation project to make serving such a large constituency -- and the county's 42 government departments the DOIT supports -- a little less trying.

"One of our biggest concerns was obviously the server sprawl that was happening," said Ryan Fernandes, the CIO of DOIT. Before the consolidation project began in 2005, many county applications were installed in different locations. Prior to that, many departments had applications running on their own servers instead of one central machine. "We decided that it made logical sense for, No. 1, all of those servers to come under the IT [department's control], and then at another point in time, they were physically moved to our data center. Most of the servers were physically moved to the data center [after the consolidation got under way]." Once the migration happened, the county could more easily audit their server environment and assess total cost of ownership.

At first, Fulton County officials didn't believe a server consolidation project was necessary. In 2005, IT decision-makers decided to replace legacy server equipment to increase efficiency and capacity. In the process, they discovered consolidation would be a valuable improvement.

"The original plan, as my predecessor saw it, was to just simply buy blade servers as a replacement for hardware that had reached [its] end of life," said Jay Terrell, the county's chief technology officer. "It was not a consolidation strategy; it was just a shift of platforms."

But after the decision was made to replace equipment, the county quickly saw the benefits of virtualization and consolidation. When virtualization software is installed on a server, the technology allows one server to house multiple "virtual servers." Thanks to this technique, Fulton County's blades can house more servers on one machine.

"For every blade, we could put eight servers on it instead of 1-to-1 servers to the blades, so at that junction, we moved away from a hardware-centric approach to a more virtualized-centric approach," said Keith Dickie, assistant director of networks for the county.

Before the hardware replacement and consolidation decisions were made, the DOIT managed various department servers -- Terrell estimated about 250 -- in remote locations across county infrastructure. Not all servers were being used to optimum capacity; and to make matters worse, they weren't all being backed up properly, which put a serious damper on disaster recovery and business continuity capabilities.

"You would have one application running per server because that's the way in which it was purchased and funded," said Dickie of the older server environment. It wasn't uncommon for a department to have its own server housing only department-specific applications, which amounted to extra, unused capacity. "So by the consolidation, we were able to take advantage of the [economies of scale] and the power of the virtual consolidated environment to take away that type of wasted resource."

On the Blade's Edge

Fulton County partnered with Fujitsu to acquire blade server technology and use the power of VMware virtualization software. The DOIT consolidated the old servers onto Fujitsu's Primergy series server blades. The IT department also purchased Fujitsu's Itanium Primequest servers, which use Red Hat Enterprise Linux to support Oracle databases.

"There were a lot of surprises [in testing and training] because we were used to dealing with stand-alone servers that were a pretty much a known quantity to us, and we understood how they

Hilton Collins, Staff Writer Hilton Collins  | 

Hilton Collins is a former staff writer for Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines.