Robert P. Cichon is a convert. “I never thought it would work or that we could afford it,” he says. As president and chief operating officer of technology services at the Small Business Authority (SBA), a Web hosting provider, Cichon shepherded his team through a drastic server consolidation project to a place where the provider now runs a public cloud for its customers on clustered Dell blade servers.

“You don’t realize the benefit of it until you actually do it. High-density environments like this are incredibly efficient and inexpensive, not to mention very stable and high performing,” Cichon says.

SBA is a brand of Newtek Business Services, headquartered in New York and created to provide technology and business services to small businesses across the U.S.. The company’s Web hosting branch has a history of catering to challenging technology customers and staying ahead of the curve to meet their needs.

“Our typical customer tends to be a technology partner to the small or medium business, whether it be a software developer or designing developer,” Cichon says. “We have customers that do products for financial institutions and the medical industry. Software developers have the ability to use our model here to multiply their products and take advantage of our growth possibilities.”

SBA chart 1

Software savings funds new servers

Three years ago, SBA began offering customers a virtual option based on the Microsoft Windows Server ® 2008 operating system with Hyper-V™ technology. Instead of leasing dedicated physical servers as they had in the past, customers could lease virtual machines at a lower cost. The company followed this with a more customizable version of its virtual option but found that the virtual servers required a great deal of IT resources to set up and maintain.

While the work was mounting, costs were also increasing. In 2010, the company was faced with a software licensing increase that would significantly affect its operating expenses. Because the increase only applied to physical, not virtual, instances of the software, SBA began to think even more about virtualization. Thanks to an enthusiastic channel provider, the company had a Dell blade server ready and waiting to be put into action.

SBA chart 2

“We work with a solution provider for Dell products called Zones, Inc.,” Cichon says. “The Zones rep was forever trying to talk us into putting Dell servers into our data center. We weren’t really interested, thinking that blade servers would be very expensive.”

The enterprising Zones rep was so convinced that SBA was a good fit for Dell server technology that he sent a Dell PowerEdge™ blade server chassis to the IT team as a gift. Although Cichon had reservations about cost and performance capabilities, he gave his team approval to experiment with the server. The SBA accounting team also began a cost analysis and discovered the money the company could save in licensing fees would cover the costs of moving to a new virtualized architecture.

The ideal architecture

Ultimately, SBA pulled off a high-volume migration that many of the companies it consulted advised against, Cichon says. According to Justin Russell, vice president of research and innovation at SBA, the IT team took 16,000 databases shared by multiple customers from 62 physical servers and converted them to virtual machines. These were moved to a cloud of 10 clustered Dell PowerEdge™ M610 blade servers with 96 GB of RAM each. The environment is connected to a Compellent™ storage area network using a mixture of SATA disks for Tier 3 storage and SAS disks for Tier 1 storage, says Russell .

Cichon was pleasantly surprised and impressed by the results. “We moved all our high-traffic, shared SQL servers to the virtual environment, and they have performed better than they did as stand-alone boxes,” he says. “The more I look at this architecture, the less I think we should be using anything else.”

The company has continued to expand upon the model, migrating all its Hyper-V customers to the environment. Russell estimates SBA is running 500 customers on about 25 blade servers. The company is also migrating mail servers and internal IT functions, and testing virtual remote desktops.

Increased cloud manageability

SBA recognized the importance of automation and control in the cloud environment and invested resources in a homegrown control center that works along with the Microsoft System Center™ management interface. “We built an environment where we can automatically allow a customer— through Microsoft software against the Dell chassis—to adjust parameters like CPU, RAM and disk space on the fly. They do it, and it happens instantly without human interaction. We have some pretty advanced stuff happening.”

According to Cinchon, customers are reacting favorably to that flexibility and degree of control, SBA’s record of almost 100% uptime, and the surprisingly reasonable price tag associated with it. “Customers can enjoy the Dell architecture and Compellent SAN behind it, but being in a high-density environment allows me to keep their costs way down.”

--Susan Fogarty works for Dell as the editor for Catalyst magazine.