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PF Olsen's IT Expansion and Contraction

Sometimes less is more. In the Information Technology realm this is becoming more so.

PF Olsen is reducing the number of servers it runs in order to:

  • increase utilisation
  • reduce mangement costs
  • reduce power consumption
  • improve reliabiilty, and
  • improve system resilience.

More computer hardware means more potential points of failure, and greater management costs. Too few servers makes a business vulnerable to single failures. Striking the right balance, and having the right strategies to prepare for failure without incurring undue expense could mean the difference between delivering leading-edge competitive management services to our clients and inefficiency and unrelaible service.

With the recent announcement that PF Olsen has been awarded the management of the Crown's West Coast resource, we brought forward a project to expand our data storage by creating a Storage Area Netwrok (SAN) and to virtualise our data servers. This project will be undertaken by our service provider, Gen-i Limited, during the Christmas/New Year period to minimise disruption to users.

So What's A SAN?

Servers are often configured with local or locally attached storage in much the same way as a home PC has its own local hard drive. This configuration limits the ability to share that disk space with other computers, or to expand storage available to that computer by adding disks. The frustration for IT Managers is to see one server running out of disk space while another server has plenty of available storage. A SAN comprises of an array of disks connected to by multiple servers. Each server can have differing amounts of drive space allocated to it. Space allocation can be changed dynamically, and when there is a need for more storage on the SAN additional drives can be added to the array and the total disk space increased without the need to shuffle data round.

In a SAN the file system appears to the user as if it is on the server, however the data is physically stored elsewhere on the network.

Because the storage is "outside the box" and connected to over a network, it is possible to have greater reliability. When the disk drive is inside the server, there is usually a single controller, which can be subject to failure. When a SAN is set up, two fibre channel connectors are installed into the server, which are then connected to the SAN via two separate switches. In order for data to be made unavailable to the users there has to be two simultaneous failures.

What is Server Virtualisation?

Until recently when an organisation wanted to add a new business system, to avoid conflicts with other systems or to enable separation, it would have bought and configured a new server. This lead to many single use servers existing in organisations. Quite often these servers were under-utilised. The tragedy of this is that regardless of how many users were connecting to the system, and how much demand there was for the memory, processor and other system resources, these machines sat in the server room drawing the same amount of power as one that was working at 90% load. And all those servers take up space in the server room.

In the last five years or so, server virtualisation has become a reality. Server virtualisation involves using one very powerful server to host multiple servers (virtual machines). Depending on load, a single server host can be configured to do the work that used to be done by five or ten physical servers. When several host servers are set up in an IT environment, the virtual machines can be configured to run on one or more of the physical hosts, thereby enabling the IT staff to move operations from one server to another for maintenance.

PF Olsen has been using server virtualisation for the last two years, and we have now reached the point where we can virtualise the last of our dedicated physical servers. Four servers will be shut down and started as virtual machines on a new physical host server. Our entire network infrastructure will have shrink from ten physical servers to three over a period of two years.

How Does this Benefit Our Clients?

In addition to the need for greater storage capacity, PF Olsen is always looking for ways to make our systems more reliable and responsive, and to protect data.

PF Olsen's staff make a lot of use of computing systems, for communications via e-mail, correspondence, and report writing, as well as record keeping and data analysis. Being able to undertake these functions reliably and quickly enables us to service more clients and service them more quickly. We want to be able to answer your questions quickly and accurately.

We also maintain a wealth of data about our clients' forests, along with financial transactions, such as paying contractors and log sales, in a safe and secure environment. We need to maintain client confidentiality about that information but also be able to make use of that information to maintain and/or add value to our clients' assets. This IT investment is just one of many ways PF Olsen ensures that it remains the leading independent provider of professional forestry services in Australasia.