National Concert Hall strikes high note


12 Mar 2010

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Music venue cuts IT costs and improves efficiency through virtualisation.

Having technology systems deliver more for less is music to the ears of any manager. Maximising software licence agreements can reduce costs while delivering top-class performance, so that IT acts as an instrument in tune with business requirements.

Situation

The National Concert Hall is rated by performing artists as one of the finest concert halls in Europe and attracted record audiences in 2008 who attended in excess of 580 events. Key to its success is its wide-ranging programme of events, the world-class artists and musicians it promotes and the level of customer care and service it provides to all customers, from the concert-going public to the performing artist on stage.

The National Concert Hall is about to commence a complete redevelopment and will open a new 2,050-seat auditorium in 2012 and a smaller 500-seat auditorium in 2013, as well as undertaking a complete refurbishment of the existing hall.

These new facilities will allow it to grow audiences and allow it to provide an even broader programme of events to meet the existing demand it faces from audiences. Information technology plays a key role in the organisation’s strategy; its mission model is to “anticipate and exploit changes in technology that will benefit our programming”. IT manager Philip Deacon took up this theme.

“The National Concert Hall’s vision of IT is to provide the latest available technology – hardware and software – to allow our end users to carry out their duties in the most efficient and productive manner. This of course has to be in a stable and secure computing environment. We want to limit the time spent on maintenance and deliver value back to the business,” he said.

Four goals underpin The National Concert Hall’s approach to IT: to reduce ongoing costs, to increase IT management capability and move to a more dynamic IT architecture, to increase performance and to enable quick deployment of servers and desktops.

The venue’s ticketing system relies heavily on IT. This allows concert goers to make bookings by phone and online. “Our call centre is kitted out with 22 thin clients running on Terminal Server 2008 to take into account our proposed redevelopment,” said Deacon. “Access control is carried out using wireless mobile scanning devices reporting back to a Microsoft 2005 SQL Server which is at the core of our ticketing system. Front of house have reports on every event, telling them what seats are used but also from a health and safety perspective, tickets sold but not used,” Deacon explained.

The Audience View ticketing software, which is the box-office system employed at the hall, has already been future-proofed to cope with the planned expansion. “We were keen to have an IT management solution in place to complement this,” Deacon added. Virtualisation had played a part in helping The National Concert Hall to streamline its IT. It had previously been running VMware infrastructure, which ran 19 virtual servers on three physical machines.

Last year, the organisation’s VMware licence was up for renewal at the same time as it had upgrade rights to Windows Server 2008. Microsoft’s virtualisation tool Hyper-V is built into Windows Server 2008, meaning organisations can take advantage of virtualisation without needing to procure third-party software. “With Windows Server 2008, Hyper-V is part of the product, as opposed to companies having to go out and buy a virtualisation solution. It’s another role on the server if the company is using the latest Windows technology,” said Declan Faller, infrastructure product manager with Microsoft Ireland.

Solution

Working with its existing IT services company, Netforce, a Microsoft Gold Certified Partner, The National Concert Hall replaced the existing VMWare ESX infrastructure with Windows Server 2008 running Hyper-V. This allows IT administrators to virtualise multiple operating systems, such as Windows or Linux on a single server.

In this case, the new virtualisation system runs on a cluster of three machines. No additional modifications were required and the organisation was able to use its existing server and storage hardware. “The transition to Hyper-V was seamless,” said Deacon. “We started on a Friday and everything was running on the Monday morning. There wasn’t any downtime or disruption,” said Larry Doyle, managing director of Netforce. “Hyper-V does everything that any small to medium business needs from a virtualisation solution. It has machine portability so you can take a virtual machine running on a Dell box and transfer it to a HP or vice versa, and there’s no messing with drivers.”

Virtualisation advantage

Another advantage of virtualisation is that it can improve disaster recovery, and make server maintenance easier. The backup solution is a disk-to-disk-to tape solution. It had already been using Microsoft Data Protection Manager to back up the existing Windows servers running on VMware. As part of the transition, Netforce upgraded The National Concert Hall’s version of Data Protection Manager to the latest service pack, which includes support for Hyper-V.

“The National Concert Hall staff don’t have to do a VMware administration course. They can do the Windows Server course – which they would have to do anyway – and it means by extension that they can manage Hyper-V,” said Doyle. Added Faller, “The beauty of this is, the IT administrators don’t have to go out and acquire a new skill set. Valuable IT staff time isn’t taken up by attending virtualisation training and there is a further cost saving by not having to take additional third-party training. IT managers can run a virtualisation test environment using the skills they already have.”

In addition, the venue has implemented Microsoft System Center Essentials and Microsoft System Center Virtual Machine Manager 2008, which manages and monitors both the physical and virtual infrastructure of servers and desktops, all from a single set of tools. The mail systems were also upgraded to Exchange 2007 SP1 Enterprise Edition and these run as a virtual machine exchange cluster. The rollout was completed with the addition of Office Communications Server 2007 to provide instant messaging and presence features. ““Our Audience View web server, which hosts our ticketing website, and our credit-card processing server, are both virtual. This means they cannot go down. This is a testament to the stability of the Hyper-V system,” Deacon added.

Benefits

Cost saving

The main benefit to The National Concert Hall is a reduction in costs, Deacon confirmed. “Through our Microsoft Licensing agreement, we had the rights to Hyper-V and Server 2008. Therefore, we did not have to renew our VMware subscription.” The result, he said, was a “considerable” cost saving in itself, as well as reduced expenditure on hardware and power, by using virtual machines running on fewer physical servers.

Improved data backup

Instead of having to back up 19 different servers, virtualisation has greatly simplified the backup process for The National Concert Hall as it only has to back up the three physical servers and Microsoft Data Protection Manager takes care of the rest. As Doyle pointed out, many of the leading backup tools from a variety of vendors such as Microsoft, Symantec and Storagecraft, are all compatible with Hyper-V. “Because of that, you can back up the host machine that’s running all the machines in one go. That is the kind of key thing that people want.”

Simplified systems management

The National Concert Hall now has a standard image deployment for desktops using Microsoft System Center Essentials, making IT’s life easier still. “The Hyper-V management tools are standard Microsoft interfaces,” Doyle said. “The management side is easier and more intuitive, I think.” Deacon confirmed that IT management has been improved through using System Centre Essentials. “Data Protection Manager has enhanced our backup capabilities. Security, which is always a major concern, has been enhanced,” he said.

Better performance of critical systems

By switching to Hyper-V, The National Concert Hall has managed to improve the running of its most important systems while lowering its IT costs. “From a performance point of view, there’s been a significant improvement in the system. I would tend to feel that Windows operating systems perform better in Hyper-V than in VMware – and it’s on the same hardware that the VMware installation had been on,” said Doyle. “I was blown away at how fast is it. The true test of this is, we went from VMware to Hyper-V on the same kit and it runs faster on Hyper-V.”

Summary

The musicians who wait nervously backstage at The National Concert Hall before curtain call are not the only ones keen to give the best possible performance. IT managers, no matter what organisation they serve, are no strangers to the pressure of having to reduce costs while keeping their IT infrastructure up and running.

Their instruments are the hardware and software that, when working in harmony, allow the show to go on. The National Concert Hall changed from VMware to Microsoft Hyper-V and by doing so, achieved better IT performance for lower cost and with easier management – music to the ears of any IT manager.

“I suppose one of the major benefits for me, with our slim IT resources, is that Hyper-V is simple and straightforward to use. The learning curve, particularly having used other virtualisation systems, was negligible,” said Deacon. “We are delighted with the solution and the capabilities that it has now given us,” he concluded.

Watch a video about the National Concert Hall’s virtualisation strategy here: icon: launch video

Photo: IT manager, Philip Deacon of the National Concert Hall (left to right); Larry Doyle, managing director NetForce, and Microsoft partner; Declan Faller, Microsoft Ireland

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