Challenging and developing great minds for more than a century, the University of Birmingham, located in Edgbaston, UK has over 34,000 students enrolled, in graduate and postgraduate programs, and is a founding member of Universitas 21, a group of elite research universities.
Lack of standards led to search for alternative solution
The storage and virtualization team within the university act as an internal cloud services provider to the IT Services support staff, who in turn provide services to the other members of the university, both staff and students.
With a team of seven, the process of deploying both Windows and Linux virtual machines (VMs) was becoming a time-consuming exercise. A typical application would be made up of three tiers consisting of a database server, an application server and a web server. When the team recorded the steps involved in deploying a virtual machine (VM), they found it took approximately seven hours from deployment to handoff, not including additional approvals time. This included such tasks as IPAM registration, adding to Veeam Backup, creating CMDB entries in ServiceNow, and producing a VM configuration report. This discovery led them to realize that they needed to be more efficient. The team were using VM templates with guest customization and a variety of post-scripts, different batch files and other tricks but while some of those processes worked well, other didn’t. There was no standardization on deployment so that, for example, VMs could be deployed by different team members using different scripts. This was the primary driver for an alternative solution.
“Our objective was simply to make it easier and faster for our internal customers to just consume a resource and then delete it afterward. That became our mission”, said Niggie Anwar, Senior Storage and Virtualization Specialist
When looking at products to automate the provisioning and orchestration of their VMs, the team wanted a very simple, intuitive interface.
“Snow Commander is a much simpler interface to use than other products,” says Niggie Anwar, adding that users can easily fill out the VM request form with all of the required information and that the simple interface is one of the main reasons for choosing Snow Commander. Prior to implementing Snow Commander, requests for systems would come in via service tickets, emails or phone calls, and invariably, not all the required information was provided, adding delay in deploying systems. Now, by using a service catalog with system blueprint forms, all the information is gathered upfront. Sandbox systems can be provisioned immediately, and production systems requiring an approval workflow are provisioned within 30 minutes. The correct notifications are sent to the right people alongside standard handover information, all automatically. VM creation is now consistent through the use of templates to configure attributes so the team are confident that the VMs have everything the users need. This is good for security too, since patch levels, best practice and configurations are exactly the same for every VM.
Time saving was the biggest benefit
“Time saving is definitely the biggest benefit we’ve gained from implementing Snow Commander,” said Niggie Anwar. “A lot of us have almost forgotten the manual way we used to do it.”
Integrating Snow Commander with ServiceNow has also resulted in time savings with fields in the ServiceNow CMDB being automatically populated, so that the team no longer has to enter configuration information manually.
Additional time savings and self-serve enhancements have been afforded the end users by using Commander to create work flows allowing them to carry out ad hoc backups in minutes instead of asking the team to do manual backups.
The team also uses Snow Commander as an access portal for VM connections: It provides the Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) and SSH links to servers and, if a user has permission, direct access to the VMware console. Another great benefit for the University is the option to use the Commmander VM Access Proxy which allows users, from anywhere across the campus, to securely access specific VMs rather than having direct access to all hosts. This extra layer of security lets the team provide an enhanced end user service while protecting their infrastructure.
“We are great advocates of Commander’s VM Access Proxy functionality as it protects our backend infrastructure and reduces our security risk immensely.”
Niggie Anwar, Senior Storage and Virtualization Specialist
A simple interface
With nearly 1,700 virtual machines in the environment, and approximately 90 new VMs being created each month, the university uses Snow Commander for the decommissioning process as well (sandbox instances, for example, have a lifecycle of three months before being removed), allowing the IT team to better monitor, manage and audit their environment. “Having fewer manual intervention steps to deploy and decommission virtual machines, along with the simplicity of the interface itself, is what makes Snow Commander stand out from the competition. And when we do need to contact support, we get a reply in a very short amount of time telling us what our expectations are for that case. I’m super-impressed with the support we get,” concluded Niggie Anwar.