Building a virtual bank

HBOS is going virtual – in a big way. Ripping up the ‘roadmaps’ it traditionally drew up to plot its future use of different types of technology, the financial services giant has developed an infrastructure architecture model, that it will adopt company-wide over the next five to 10 years.

Critical to achieving that is an across-the-board deployment of virtualisation, according to HBOS’s infrastructure manager Bob Sibley – virtualisation at the server, storage, networking and even the application layer.

And that is already underway at a frantic pace. “We are putting hypervisors on the ground like crazy,” Sibley told the audience of IT decision-makers at Information Age’s Future of the Data Centre 2007 conference in June. “Applications are getting decomposed into components; and we want to release applications from the CPU.”

The aim is to create a pool of CPU horsepower that uses virtualisation to move applications from one platform to another, seamlessly – “without the user noticing a thing,” he says.

Sibley concedes that HBOS is still some way from realising that goal, but given the complexity of its existing infrastructure that is not surprising.

The systems line-up in its data centres includes standalone Unix  and Windows servers, IBM mid-range systems, racks packed with blades, and mainframes systems. In all, it operates around 10,000 servers, with 7,000 to 8,000 servers and its multiple mainframes house its two main data centres.


Bob Sibley


One of the key drivers for the HBOS virtualisation push is the high levels of inefficiency within this battery of machines. According to Sibley, utilisation of a typical Unix system averages about 30%, while Windows machines run at 5% to 20% capacity.

“We need to sort that out and free up space and reduce power and cooling requirements within our data centres,” he says. “We need to reduce hardware costs. Clearly at 5%, we are wasting a lot of money. We desperately need CPU virtualisation. We have got servers that want [urgently] to come into the data centre.” At this point, he says, 75 machines are sitting in the queue.

To address that it has started partitioning its production systems: its mainframes are divided into 50 native local partitions; its IBM pSeries 330; IBM iSeries machines support 50, and its HP Superdome servers 10. The company’s use of virtualisation in Windows environments is still embryonic. Initially it is drawing on the experience of virtualisation at its Lex Vehicle Leasing division, where 8 hosts are running 50 virtual machines.

The company has also applied virtualisation in production for its VPN and voice-over-IP networks.

In development and testing, HBOS is using Microsoft’s Virtual Server (software that came as a free add on) to provide 300 ‘guests’ on its development machines, at a ratio of around 30 to each box, and 400 ‘guests’ on its test machines at a ratio of 20 to 1.

While there is a sense of urgency about the push to virtualise, HBOS (unlike many other organisations) is less worried about the cost of the energy its data centres are consuming. Sibley says the annual electricity bill for its two main data centres runs at £1.5 million. “The cost of power is not the biggest problem we face,” he says.

More of a problem for HBOS is the issue of software licensing. “Software licensing is a nightmare when running at the sub-CPU level,” he says. What should a company pay when it is making use of only a fraction of a CPU? he asks. “We have no clarity. Until we solve this, it is going to be a major inhibitor for us to make full use of [virtualisation]. The technical stuff we can do, but charging, that is a big unknown today.”

Other challenges include the lack of interaction between different vendors’ hypervisors; and the immature state of tools for measuring and managing virtual environments and controlling performance characteristics. “Storage virtualisation also has some growing to do, not just in functionality but in terms scalability,” says Sibley.

But HBOS is not waiting until everything is in place. It can’t. “There are inhibitors and problems, but we’ll overcome them. We are absolutely embracing the technology [as] we need to do something now.”

David Cliff

David Cliff is managing director of Houghton le Spring-based Gedanken, a company specialising in coaching-based support and personal development. Cliff is an experienced trainer, manager and therapist,...

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