Published: 8 November 2010
CipherWave is a specialist IT company focusing on delivering services that integrate businesses with the latest technological offerings from national network infrastructure to fully managed hosted virtual servers. CipherWave is a young, dynamic, customer-centric company providing services that are demanded by the companies who gear themselves for success and growth in a competitive market landscape while supplying and guaranteeing the cost competitive advantages required to put their businesses ahead of their competitors with faster speed, higher performance and dedicated specialised support around the clock.
CipherWave prides itself as a niche entity, providing guaranteed levels of service. Their offering is simple; dedicated support, 100% uptime, a designated professional around the clock for your requirements and backed by a team of engineers and server software and hardware specialists. CipherWave is an essential IT support company, an Internet Service Provider (ISP) and media services company, with the most technologically advanced IP backbone networks in South Africa and full high availability secure CipherVault™ (Data Centre) on the continent that is independently owned and managed with strategic Points of Presence (PoPs) across South Africa, including data centres located in Midrand, Isando, Cape Town.
CipherWave entered the market realising a persistent issue for many companies that wished to embrace technology, but did not have the capital expenditures and required skill sets available to buy and maintain the necessary infrastructure. A typical company acquires multiple servers during its lifetime as it grows and finds the need to expand its supporting infrastructure, adding new servers as they go along. This very quickly becomes an expensive exercise, not only in terms of purchasing new physical hardware, but also in terms of the physical space required to house the infrastructure as well as the electricity, cooling and support staff requirements. In a recessionary economy, companies are looking to cut back on costs, consolidate and outsource, focussing on their core business and leaving the rest to those who make it their daily expertise. Seeing this issue in the market, CipherWave identified the real need for a data centre that was secure, centralised, always available and most importantly, efficient. This gave birth to CipherWave’s dream of building one of the top rated data centres on the African continent that would provide customers with the opportunity to embrace the latest technological offerings available to the market while keeping operational costs as low as possible. The way to achieve this soon became apparent, and the notion of building a green virtualised data centre was set forth.
Having the ideas in place, the next step for CipherWave was to establish the correct industry partnerships to help realise their goals. Conekt Business Group has been in business for 15 years. Their current form is the result of a merger in 2005 that saw Conekt IT Business Services and XM Solutions join forces. Conekt offers a full service offering comprising ISP, Hardware & Software provision and Consulting, Support & Project services.
Conekt holds a number of industry certifications and partnerships that they leverage for maximum benefit to their customers. Their accreditations to date include:
- Microsoft Gold Certified Partner
- IBM Advanced Partner
- Dell Partner
- HP Preferred Partner
- Internet Solutions Platinum Partner
- ESET Partner
As a certified Microsoft Gold Partner, Conekt are able to provide a total solution which encompasses the relevant Microsoft licenses options and technologies allowing them to provide optimised deployments through adherence to Microsoft best practices. With a team of over 30 people, Conekt are focused on creating real business value by integrating core business elements to foster growth, improve agility and maximise capability. They are a BBBEE , Category A, Level 2 ( 51% black owned) contributor and currently have a presence in Cape Town, Durban and Port Elizabeth.
Through past business relations, CipherWave saw Conekt as an ideal strategic partner which would lend its experience, knowledge and resources to complement CipherWave’s infrastructure and cloud ambitions to be able to deliver a full end-to-end managed solution to clients. A combination of Conekt's dynamic business and resourcing model, adoption of advanced Microsoft technologies, and past success record in take-on of customer environments into the data centre, plus deployment of server and virtualisation (including Dynamic Data Centre) solutions imbued CipherWave with the confidence to select Conekt as their preferred partner going forward into a cloud services business model.
Through many discussions, workshops and whiteboard sessions, CipherWave and Conekt started planning how they would build an efficient virtualised data centre that would allow CipherWave to compete in the market with the lowest cost base while maintaining stringent service levels and management offerings. Conekt’s proposal was to build the virtualised platform with the Microsoft Hyper-V and Microsoft System Center offerings that would allow CipherWave to build a Dynamic Data Centre providing self-managing dynamic systems and operational agility. The decision to go the Microsoft Hyper-V route as opposed to the more established VMware option was relatively simple and clear cut given that research has shown that IT labour costs alone are reduced by up to 24% over that of VMware. Added to that, Microsoft Hyper-V offered greater guest density across physical infrastructure allowing CipherWave to fully utilise the available resources and as efficiently as possible. With over 85% of guest OSs across many already deployed virtual solutions globally being Windows based, utilising the Microsoft based virtualisation solution meant for greater integration between the host servers and their respective guest servers, providing extra value services through integration services and the various components of the Microsoft System Center suite of products such as Virtual Machine Manager (VMM), Data Protection Manager (DPM) and more. When comparing like-for-like, Microsoft matches VMware in the majority of VMware’s available functionality and provides some additional features that would later prove invaluable to the Dynamic Data Center environment.
Together, CipherWave and Conekt designed the envisioned virtualised data center in accordance to material published by Microsoft through their planning and deployment guides. By closely following the published resources, Conekt managed to design a solution that not only met, but surpassed CipherWave’s requirements in terms of hardware utilisation, power utilisation, storage utilisation, networking, availability, redundancy and security.
The final design featured two fibre SAN storage devices configured through two fibre SAN switches which in turn would connect to dual fibre ports on each physical host node of the virtualised environment. In addition to the fibre SAN environment which would act as the primary access for the environment and the storage area for the virtual guest images, an iSCSI network would be configured. The iSCSI would be used as the backup destination for Microsoft System Center Data Protection Manager (DPM). All guest virtual machines would be backed up via DPM through the iSCSI network to an enterprise class Thecus iSCSI device with redundant power supplies and network interfaces as well as a cold spare device kept on-hand in case of device failure. As the storage is the foundation of the environment, careful consideration was taken to ensure that redundancy was catered for with as little compromise on performance as possible. To achieve optimum availability and performance, the following configurations were selected:
- SAN Devices:
- 6Gb/s Enterprise SAS Hard Drives
- RAID 6
- iSCSI Devices:
- 3Gb/s Enterprise SATA Hard Drives
- RAID 6
- Physical Host Nodes:
- 6Gb/s Enterprise SAS Hard Drives
- RAID 1
- Management Servers:
- 3Gb/s Enterprise SATA Hard Drives
- RAID 1/5
To further optimise storage performance, disk sector alignment was performed on all volumes to best suit their intended purpose and increase performance up to 40%. Conekt has found that this technique has proved invaluable in past deployments of Microsoft servers for their other clients, especially when dealing with large files and databases.
The networking of the environment was made up of multiple physically independent networks with inherent redundancy built-in to ensure maximum availability. These networks included:
- Hyper-V Network 1
- Hyper-V Network 2
- Heartbeat Network
- Redirected I/O Network
- Live Migration Network
- Management Network
Each network was configured on primary and redundant gigabit switches and CAT6 UTP cabling to ensure availability and optimum speed across the environment. Each physical host node in the virtualised environment featured twelve gigabit network interfaces, each one connected to the switches in the above networks. The heartbeat network would allow for VMM to constantly monitor the physical host nodes and quickly determine if a node becomes unresponsive and to take appropriate action to ensure that none of the guest virtual servers hosted on that particular node experience any downtime. To accommodate for this, VMM has the capability of using the live migration network to transfer the virtual servers from one host to another while they are in a production environment without the end user of that virtual server experiencing any disconnection of service. In the event that one of the physical nodes loses communication to the SAN storage environment, the redirected I/O network allows for that node to utilise another nodes communication links to the SAN via that node. Should this occur, VMs on the faulty node will incur slight performance degradation, but not a total loss of service, allowing technicians to migrate those VMs to fully functional nodes until the problem is rectified.
As Conekt are a preferred partner of Dell within the South African region and Dell servers are certified for use within a virtualised Hyper-V environment, it was decided that Dell server hardware would be the best choice when considering which servers to implement as the physical host nodes. It was decided that each physical host node would be configured with the following specifications:
- Dell PowerEdge R710 2U Chassis
- 2 x Intel Xeon X5680 Processor (3.33Ghz, 6 cores, 12Mb Cache, 6.40 GT/s QPI, 130W TDP, Turbo, HT)
- 96GB Memory for 2CPU (6x16GB Quad Rank RDIMMs) 1066MHz
- 2 x 146GB SAS 15k 3.5" Hot Swappable Hard Drives (RAID 1)
- Dell Emulex LPe12002-E HBA 8Gbps Dual-port Fibre Channel HBA
- High Output Redundant Power Supply (2 PSU) 870W
- 12 x Intel Gigabit Network Interfaces
Once the physical infrastructure of the storage areas and network were installed and configured, Microsoft Server 2008 R2 with Hyper-V was deployed as the base OS on the physical host nodes to provide the virtualisation platform. A domain controller was setup on the management network and once configured, the technicians proceeded to configure the physical host nodes within a failover cluster with the SAN device acting as the quorum for the cluster. Configuring the physical host nodes proved to be relatively simple and now Conekt were able to start setting up the individual management servers that would be used to control and manage the entire virtualised environment and provide the integration services and tools necessary for the environment to run under optimal conditions.
Conekt and CipherWave made the decision to go the Microsoft System Center route when considering the management of the infrastructure due to the fact that it was designed specifically for the environment. Microsoft System Center solutions provide an integrated, extensible platform for managing IT resources so that Conekt and CipherWave’s technicians can be more productive and efficient within the virtual data center environment. Microsoft System Center solutions are integrated with one another to provide a comprehensive and consistent management approach. In addition, System Center solutions integrate with Microsoft Core Infrastructure solutions, including identity, security, database, and server solutions enabling System Center to leverage the management technologies and instrumentation available in the core platform, using them to collect more monitoring information and provide tighter control over operating system configuration and compliance. Using the Data Center Toolkit, Conekt will also be able to automate many of the frequent task such as server deployment and backing of VMs at the file level across multiple domains, making the amount of manual effort on the part of CipherWave minimal. This further increases efficiency, reducing the amount of IT human resources required to manage the environment and in turn keeping the costs at a low base level enabling CipherWave to compete effectively in the market.
The management portion of the environment is configured to run on independent physical hardware with redundancy built-in to ensure that any issues that may be inherent to the virtual environment will not compromise Conekt’s ability to identify and rectify the issue through the System Center infrastructure. Figure 1 shows the architecture of the various System Center components and how they integrate with each other to enable a highly efficient dynamic data center.
Figure 1: Dynamic Data Center Architecture
Although still going through constant tweaking and advancements such as those being provided through the dynamic data center toolkit, Conekt have already successfully planned, designed and implemented a virtual data center environment that is actively generating revenues for CipherWave.
CipherWave has already created a strong and satisfied customer base within their virtual environment, with customers having virtual servers ranging from web servers, SQL servers, Exchange servers to servers running a Linux distribution OS. Feedback from clients has been phenomenal with many of the known benefits being highlighted, such as:
Initially some clients are sceptical about hosting servers within a shared virtual environment, with their common concern being the perceived lack of security and privacy of data. Through close adherence to Microsoft’s planning and implementation guides and the best practices prescribed within, Conekt has ensured that they have delivered a virtual environment that is secure, ensures the protection of users’ data from both malicious activity and accidental deletion, provisions virtual servers rapidly and allows for multiple separate clients to be hosted in the same environment, while ensuring that their virtual networks are kept totally separate and secure from each other.
The initial requirements of the project was to deliver a solution that would allow CipherWave to go to market with a virtual hosting offering while maintaining low operational costs, low power consumption and be fully integrated with management tools that would allow for quick provisioning of servers on the fly as well as monitoring the health of the environment.
Going forward, Conekt will be making full use of the tools released as part of the Dynamic Datacentre Toolkit from Microsoft to further integrate the System Center components with each other and empower CipherWave to be able to control every aspect of the virtual environment from monitoring, to backups, to deployment, to reporting and more. Due to the architecture of the System Center components and the integration across the Microsoft family of products, System Center will enable CipherWave to extend their current offerings of Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) and Platform of a Service (PaaS) into Software as a Service (SaaS), offering a full range of managed Microsoft applications such as Dynamics CRM, SharePoint, Exchange, SQL, etc.
Through the successful business collaboration between CipherWave and Conekt Business Group, CipherWave aims to become the first fully fledged Microsoft Dynamic Data Center in South Africa offering a fully managed end-to-end service to client and achieving a majority market share in the cloud computing space. In the coming years, the partnership will see the company extending its reach with nationally diverse data centres supporting each other, providing true disaster recovery for the primary CipherVault Data Center. Conekt will continue to be the primary support company for the data center and the hosted client services add to Conekt’s portfolio of services and case studies. CipherWave believes that with its partnership with Conekt and Microsoft, they will revolutionise the cloud computing market in South Africa, proving the organisations that virtualisation is the future and that the future is now within reach.
Click here to view the official Microsoft Case Study website