A Working Combination

Is open source virtualization right for you?

GUEST COLUMN | by John Fulton

CREDIT Lafayette CollegeServer virtualization is nothing new. It’s been 10 years since VMware was acquired by EMC and since the first free and open source x86 hypervisor, Xen, was released. It’s now unusual for me to speak with my counterparts in other higher education IT organizations that are not using some form of server virtualization. Often they say they are using a popular but proprietary vendor for their virtualization platform, even when the majority of their other platform software stack isn’t proprietary.

The features offered in a proprietary virtualization platform must be compelling for its user to purchase the software and agree to the terms of its license. It seems an assumption is made that the features are exclusive to the product or that only by agreeing to such a license can support be obtained from a reliable vendor. Before making such a commitment, consider if it’s possible to get comparable features at no cost, the freedom to understand that software as deeply as you need (even to the source code level if necessary) and also be able to purchase support from a reliable vendor.

At Lafayette College, 90 percent of our servers run as virtual machines on Red Hat Enterprise Virtualization. We have been on Red Hat Enterprise Virtualization for one and half years but we’ve been using the underlying technology in production since 2009. This underlying technology is a cocktail of free and open source software like KVM, QEMU, fenced, clvm, gfs, cman and rgmanger. This combination can run virtual servers within a cluster of physical servers and share storage so that those virtual servers can move between physical servers without any disruption of service.

Before deploying Red Hat Enterprise Virtualization, we were able to mix this cocktail on our own to achieve the features we wanted, but the resulting system was not as easy to manage as other popular virtualization platforms that wrap elements of the cocktail into a graphical user interface. With Red Hat Enterprise Virtualization, Red Hat is offering a similar cocktail with a graphical interface for managing all aspects of the system as well as an API. Red Hat also supports the system as a whole so moving to Red Hat Enterprise Virtualization made a lot of sense for Lafayette Information Technology Services (ITS).

The working combination of virtualization platform and management tools that is Red Hat Enterprise Virtualization are also available without support directly from ovirt.org. You can even read the source code and see developer commits at gerrit.ovirt.org. Downloading the source or executables from ovirt.org is helpful if you want to test the software before you buy it. However, when I told Red Hat that Lafayette was interested in Red Hat Enterprise Virtualization they gave us the exact same packages we would get if we had bought support along with that support at no cost. This was offered to us in a trial so that if we had problems we could get unstuck quickly.

Getting unstuck quickly is the value-add for many free and open source companies. Buying support is an accepted thing to do in the IT industry as inevitably there will be problems you don’t have time to figure out how to fix yourself. Having access to the source code gives you more options for support since if your support is bad, then at least you can pay someone else to help you and they will have been legally allowed to understand the software. Luckily this has not been the case with Red Hat as their support has been very helpful and we’ve been able to use it to learn.

Our workflow for standing up a service or solving a problem is to talk about it internally, post an issue on a relevant public forum, and also open a support ticket. This workflow may also vary depending on the time we have to get an issue resolved. There have been times where we have posted the answer from support back to the public forum where we asked the original question so that others could benefit.

Lafayette ITS has virtualized all of our mail/calendaring servers (Zimbra), Unified Communications servers (eZuce OpenUC), web servers (PHP and Java), MySQL servers, file servers (Samba), OpenLDAP servers, DNS/DHCP servers, Desktop Management servers (LanDesk) on Red Hat Enterprise Virtualization. The main services we have not yet virtualized on Red Hat Enterprise Virtualization, and which are physical, are our Oracle servers and our backup servers (TSM). We run two Red Hat Enterprise Virtualization clusters in production, one in each of our two data centers, and have a third Red Hat Enterprise Virtualization cluster for development.

Our next move will be to pilot Red Hat Storage (based on the free and open source software project gluster.org) and build a scale-out NAS with commodity hardware. Red Hat Enterprise Virtualization supports integration with Red Hat Storage, so we’re hoping to give a lot of our virtual machines a space upgrade and hopefully getting some savings by not buying as much SAN space.

John Fulton is the Director of Network and Systems at Lafayette College Information Technology Services. John has been working in higher education IT for 13 years and has focused his career on developing and deploying free and open source software. He is a Red Hat Certified Engineer and holds a Bachelor’s Degree from Rutgers University, where he completed a double major in Philosophy and Computer Science.

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