ITaP units' virtualization partnership avoids duplication, better serves researchers

August 3, 2009

Recent growth in demand for computational resources from Purdue researchers prompted ITaP to expand its high-performance computing hardware drastically, including the Steele community cluster built in 2008, one of the world’s Top 500 supercomputers, and the Coates cluster built July 21.

The growth also has strained capacity to handle routine tasks, such as managing password authentication, print serving, or routing email messages about research jobs running on ITaP’s supercomputers. The Rosen Center for Advanced Computing, the research and discovery arm of ITaP, uses regular server computers for that type of work, and for less demanding computing needs of Purdue researchers it serves, such as developing Web-based science tools.

For example, the Purdue Ionomics Information Management System (PiiMS) is a Web portal aimed at better understanding how plants take up, transport and store nutrients and toxics—knowledge which could benefit both human health and the natural environment. PiiMS makes curated data on many thousands of plants freely available to the public via the Web. Now, Rosen Center services supporting the PiiMS portal can take advantage of the same robust virtualization infrastructure as other University functions.

To meet the broader needs of the research community, the Rosen Center is using the “enterprise class” virtualization already in place for Purdue’s academic and business computing needs. In effect, teams within ITaP have decided against developing a second virtualization infrastructure solely for the University's research mission—an option the Rosen Center considered—and agreed to leverage their varied expertise to more effectively serve faculty researchers and other users, said John Campbell, associate vice president in charge of ITaP’s research computing efforts.

Michael Rubesch, ITaP’s systems and operations head, said ITaP can provide cost-effective service for other campus units that would benefit from virtualization as well. This also will allow them to avoid duplication of efforts within Purdue as the Rosen Center has done.

Purdue was recognized by InfoWorld magazine in 2007 for its virtualization efforts. The magazine listed ITaP’s program among its Top 100 innovative solutions to information technology challenges developed by corporations and institutions.

Virtualization allows a server computer to function is if it were multiple servers, even multiple servers with different operating systems. Users generally can’t tell whether they’re running applications on a virtual machine or on hardware.

Purdue’s virtualization program initially allowed it to move the work of 140 servers to three machines. That move reduced power usage by 84 percent, cut the amount of space taken up by servers to a tenth and saved $325,000 a year. Today, ITaP runs nearly 300 virtual machines on just eight physical servers. The system handles everything from certain student data to sales at the Purdue golf courses—and now includes support services for supercomputing.

The Rosen Center’s virtual machines run on the same servers ITaP systems and operations uses for nonresearch computing purposes. The virtualization platform employs virtual machine software from VMware (a subsidiary of EMC), ITaP’s partner. Rosen Center staff members can create, configure and administer the virtual machines from across campus, while ITaP systems and operations continues to handle the underlying infrastructure and offers seasoned technical support on virtualization.

Rubesch said ITaP initially got into virtualization to address power and cooling costs and space limitations at Purdue’s primary data center in Freehafer Hall. Similarly, an increased demand for power and cooling for larger research systems has led the Rosen Center toward virtualization.

The disaster recovery aspects of virtualization also were attractive. Virtual machines running on a server that goes off line can be moved to another host machine on a network in the VMware architecture. It also takes less time to create a virtual machine, just minutes, than to provision equivalent hardware, Rubesch said.

Disaster recovery was a factor in the Rosen Center’s move to virtualization. However, pressed for capacity in its Math Building data center, the savings in space, power and cooling was even more important. The move also keeps Rosen Center staff—along with its computers—focused on the center’s main function, research computing.

Writer: Greg Kline, science and technology writer, Information Technology at Purdue (ITaP), 765-494-8167,

Originally posted: August 3, 2009