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Mutual of Omaha Gains Agility and Efficiencies as It ’Greens’ Its Technology

Data center reconfiguration and server virtualization have yielded not only business agility benefits but also significant cost efficiencies related to environmentally friendly modifications to the physical plant and server farm.

Having set out to increase its business agility, Mutual of Omaha ($4.1 billion in annual revenue) also has achieved significant efficiency benefits from environmentally friendly modifications to its 40-year-old data center. The Omaha, Neb.-based carrier has saved nearly 10 million kilowatts per year, reduced emissions by the equivalent of more than 1,200 automobiles and gained annual savings of more than $460,000, according to Gary Denniston, Mutual of Omaha's director of IT operations systems, who adds that the insurer's efficiency profile continues to improve.

Mutual of Omaha's greening initiative grew out of a long-term effort begun in 2002 to speed the deployment of server hardware and software, increase its flexibility in executing upgrades and configuration changes, and boost utilization of physical servers, Denniston relates. "We knew when we embarked on this effort in 2002 that there would be some power and heating reduction side effects, but we weren't focused on green objectives," he comments. "Nevertheless we realized some significant benefits as a result of 'green' measures."

The carrier's virtualization efforts have been directed at both its midrange IBM System p (P series) hardware environment and its microserver environment, which consists of Intel-based machines running on a predominantly Windows operating system. As late as 2003 the System p environment was characterized by a 1-1 ratio of software to hardware, according to Denniston. Today it is 100 percent virtualized, with about 150 virtual servers/images running on 50 physical servers, he reports.

As the virtualization initiative proceeded, Mutual of Omaha began an effort to improve the physical data center environment in 2004. Among the measures undertaken were building a sequestered support area to limit access to the floor and removing from beneath the floor a significant quantity of dead cable that had accumulated over the years, according to Ken Ochsner, information service manager.

Cooling Best Practices

In 2005 the carrier upgraded the data center's fire prevention system, cooling system and uninterruptible power supply (UPS) system, and installed remote distribution cabinets (RDC) for its servers, Ochsner says. The cooling system improvements included six 30-ton CRAC (computer room air conditioning) units, but the carrier needed to undertake subsequent modifications because of the increasing density of its servers and cabinets under the virtualization initiative. Floor tiles that in the past had been cut to accommodate cables were decreasing air pressure in the data center, resulting in the failure of cool air to reach some hardware, he explains. Also, the arrangement of servers caused hot exhaust air to sometimes mix with cooled air, neutralizing the cooling effect. "We started eliminating this 'bypassed air' by closing up about 300 cable cuts in the floor," Ochsner says. "We increased static air pressure 1,000 percent."

The carrier also installed thermal glass to improve insulation and configured server cabinets so that adjacent rows would draw cold air from a shared cold aisle and expel hot exhaust air into a common hot air aisle, decreasing the bypass of cold air, Ochsner adds. Efficiency was further refined by the addition of "blanking" panels over gaps in cabinets, he notes, preventing the exhaust air from being circulated back into the shared cold aisle.

While the cooling best practices were deployed, Mutual of Omaha's microserver environment followed its own path to virtualization. Today the carrier has a total of about 650 servers; of those, 230 are virtualized and run on 29 machines that also support 415 XP workstations, according to Denniston. For now, he notes, the virtualized microserver environment only runs development and test workloads. "We have moved very cautiously over the years due to the maturity of the virtualization software," Denniston says.

In both the micro- and midrange environments, rapidly maturing technology promises significant hardware utilization and efficiency gains in the near future for Mutual of Omaha, Denniston adds. Only recently have hardware capabilities begun to support a more compelling business case for virtualization in the microserver environment, using VMware ESX software, he contends. "The breakeven point recently shifted to a place that allows us to move forward more aggressively, and the performance of the virtual servers has improved to where we feel comfortable running production workloads on them," Denniston explains.

In the midrange environment Denniston expects increasing technological maturity will drive an already impressive 5-1 virtual-to-hardware ratio to 15-1. "We will be able to run 150 images on 10 servers," he predicts. "The power those draw and the heat they put out will be continually reduced, as well as the square footage required in the data canter."

Owing to that increasing efficiency, Denniston expects to be able to grow Mutual of Omaha's server farm without increasing staff proportionately. In addition to the savings and emissions reductions, he says, the virtualization journey has improved manageability and efficiency from a systems administration standpoint.

As a demonstration of the carrier's improved agility, Denniston relates, its current capabilities enabled the company to better support the needs of Mutual of Omaha Bank, a subsidiary founded in 2007.

database, green IT, virtualization

Anthony O'Donnell has covered technology in the insurance industry since 2000, when he joined the editorial staff of Insurance & Technology. As an editor and reporter for I&T and the InformationWeek Financial Services of TechWeb he has written on all areas of information ... View Full Bio

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