Virtualisation at South Tyneside College

A major FE college radically improves its level of IT support for learning, leadership and administration with the aid of Microsoft technologies, particularly Microsoft Hyper-V for server virtualisation.

South Tyneside College is a large Further Education institution on two sites in South Shields, on the North East Coast of England. It has about 11,000 students enrolled on a full range of courses. A strong and historic specialisation in Marine studies means that the college draws students from around the world as well as from the local area and across the UK.


College Front


IT at South Tyneside

In the FE environment, a high quality user experience of IT is essential for success and growth. At South Tyneside College this is recognised by the creative and forward looking deployment of a range of technologies in which Microsoft products strongly feature, including Hyper-V for server virtualisation,

The importance of that user experience is well demonstrated by the annual student enrolment process. At South Tyneside College between three and four thousand students will enrol between the last week in August and the second week in September.

Head of IT Services Craig Scott explains how this works.

‘All our enrolments are entered into our student records system in real time, with the student sitting in front of a member of staff who is typing in their details, putting them on the correct courses. Obviously during this two to three week period, reliability and performance are key factors. Big delays or technical problems during enrolment can lead to students walking out the door and enrolling at another college.’

Clearly, then, the very wide range of users – administrators, managers, students, teaching staff and others, within College and beyond – expect, as of right, a level of service that’s fast, unobtrusive, reliable, consistent and responsive to rapidly changing circumstances. Meeting those demands from a new data centre brought on line during the Summer of 2012, Craig Scott and his team deploy and support technologies that include Microsoft Desktop Applications which are in constant use across 2000 desktop and portable device. There are also numerous business applications fundamental to the efficient working of the College, such as Microsoft Exchange, SQL Data bases, and proprietary finance systems and student records (including pastoral records).

Most importantly, however, all the College’s mission-critical business systems are provided within a private cloud, hosted by servers virtualized with Microsoft Hyper-V, chosen after initial experience with both Microsoft technology and VMWare.


The South Tyneside College Virtualisation Journey

The College’s ambitious and innovative move of its IT infrastructure from a large number of single-purpose physical servers to a fully virtualised environment has been achieved over some five years by the College IT team, led by Head of IT Services Craig Scott . The aim, throughout, has been to stay ahead of growing demand and expectations with the best and most cost-effective user experience.

Craig and the team embarked on virtualisation technology in 2006/7, using two Microsoft Virtual Servers, and one VMWare server. Then a year or so later along came Windows Server 2008, which came with Hyper-V. Craig and his team installed this on a spare server and in the course of exploring its features they found it to be the best option – more efficient, easier to use. The fact that Windows 2008 and Hyper-V included Windows Failover Clustering further confirmed that Microsoft’s Hyper-V route was the one to take. So within six months of the release of Windows Server 2008, Craig had migrated eight existing virtual servers, including Exchange and SQL Server, to a Windows Failover Cluster hosted on two physical servers.

From that point, there was steady progress, The upgrade in 2009 of Windows Server 2008 to 2008 R2 brought a new version of Hyper-V, which was now installed on a Windows Failover Cluster grown to five servers, to which all existing virtual servers were now migrated. The process continued through the rest of 2009 until by December the failover cluster had expanded again, to seven servers into which fifty physical servers were now migrated.

The year 2011 brought pressures on funding, and the familiar need to achieve more with less. Reliability and efficiency could not be compromised however, and by now, experience showed that Hyper-V was well up to the task, so Craig and the team decided to establish a second seven-server Windows 2008 R2 Failover Cluster running Hyper-V. This now gave the College a remarkably robust IT infrastructure. As Craig puts it,

‘Once this second cluster was established we effectively replicated a lot of our existing application/front-end servers for business critical systems and used Windows Network Load Balancing to balance the traffic between them on the two clusters.’


The Current Picture

The position now, into the beginning of Academic Year 2012- 2013 is that both of the ‘production’ seven-server Hyper-V clusters are located in the new data centre – a compact installation taking up less room, using less energy than a large number of individual physical servers.

In addition, underlining the emphasis on reliability, there are also five servers, again running 2008 R2 and Hyper-V, in an auxiliary server room across the campus. These servers host ‘cold’ and ‘warm’ standby virtual machines for all critical systems. As Craig says,

‘We’ve been able to facilitate this via Microsoft Data Protection Manager 2012 which we use to back up all the virtual machines from our production clusters and restore them in a dormant state to our standby Hyper-V servers. In the event of a serious issue with one or more of the servers in the primary data centre we can bring the cold or warm standby virtual machine hosted in the auxiliary server room into use within five to ten minutes.’

It seems that the more experience that Craig and the team have with Microsoft technologies, the more they’re able to put them to work for learners and staff at the college. Their deployment of Microsoft App-V, for example, means that Microsoft desktop applications do not have to be installed on desktops, but are available to users on demand from the virtualised servers via a browser. As a result, any application is available on any PC and when there are short notice room changes, for example, the necessary software for the class is still available. It’s a classic example of ‘Software as a Service’ (SaaS) running in a private cloud.

Then there is extensive use of Microsoft System Center as an invaluable platform for managing the network. Microsoft System Center Virtual Machine Manager is used to manage all the virtual machines, and Microsoft System Center Service Manager and System Center Orchestrator are used to streamline the work of the IT Helpdesk. In fact positive experience with System Center has led to its replacing the open source Request Tracker (RT) that had been in use for the helpdesk, enabling some issues to be handled automatically – as Craig says,

‘Again helping us to deliver more with less and increase reliability and efficiency.’


Reaping the Benefits


1. Reliability

IT managers know that users want a system there when they want it, instantly, all the time, any time, The record shows that Craig Scott and his team are achieving exactly that for learners and staff at South Tyneside College. In Craig’s words,

‘Hyper-v and our private cloud have really helped us to deliver the levels of reliability and performance we need. The combination of Hyper-V, Windows Failover Clusters and Windows Network Load Balancing allowed us to achieve 99.95% average availability on our critical systems and services last academic year (the equivalent of 59 minutes and 57 seconds uptime out of every hour). ‘

Most would settle for that. But, adds Craig,

‘This year we’re aiming for 99.99%.’

2. Flexibility

The academic year in a further education college makes widely varying demands on the IT network , not all of them predictable. At the start there’s the enrolment process already described, followed by initial assessments of new students by online testing, and later in the year will come a programme of examinations.

This is where South Tyneside College’ virtualised IT environment shows its strength because of the ease with which virtualised servers can be moved around to add or reduce capacity in response to demand.

Without that level of flexibility some activities either just couldn’t happen, or would have to wait for the acquisition of new physical servers.

‘There are massive benefits in this,’ says Craig, ‘There’ve been times when we’ve been involved in collaborative projects with other colleges, only to find they’ve stalled because they were waiting for new hardware, where we’ve been able to get a new virtual server up and running in half an hour.’


And still to come?

As the future brings college expansion and growing user expectation, South Tyneside College’s IT team seeks constantly to exploit developing technologies. Plans include –

Moving mail accounts currently hosted on Google, to Office 365.

It’s estimated that this will be trialled in the Spring of 2013, with a full migration in July/August.

Using the cloud for disaster recovery. Craig Scott says, ,

“We’ve got some funding from the Association of Colleges to look into cloud based disaster recovery solutions, and will evaluate Azure as a possible option”

Developing the use of SharePoint. Craig Scott says,

‘We use SharePoint for our intranet and document management solution, and plan to develop the electronic document management side of this further this academic year’

In the immediate future (before Christmas 2012) there will be trial deployments of Windows Server 2012 particularly to evaluate the enhancements to hyper-v and other new features such as data duplication. Following on, consideration will be given to upgrading one of the Hyper-V clusters from Windows Server 2008 R2 to Windows 2012.

More with less

Our education blogs have many examples of virtualisation with Hyper-V as a cost saver, because it can radically cut spending on servers, maintenance and energy use. In each case, however, there have also been considerable efficiency gains and it’s clear from the experience at South Tyneside College that in an enterprise-scale installation what matters most isn’t so much cost saving as cost-effectiveness -- the radically improved service to a large and varied population of users.

‘More with less’, as Craig Scott puts it.

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