Martin Taylor, Royal Horticultural Society

My Way - IT at the Royal Horticultural Society

The Royal Horticultural Society's enterprise IT has to be very green - not always easy when data is growing like Japanese Knotweed, and there's a temptation to throw storage solutions of any hue at the problem. Manager of the RHS's IT Martin Taylor explains to E&T.

Engineering & Technology: There are plenty of enterprise IT products described as 'green', when in reality it doesn't mean much. Why go with Compellent's SAN (storage area network) when looking for a new storage solution?

Martin Taylor: Compellent factors in that, although 'green' is not at the head of the agenda for most people, it is a good side benefit. The SAN's power consumption is pretty low, and it has got some interesting modules in it that let you know what the power consumption is, and so on. But it is what it enables me that gives you the 'green' side: a nice, light-running SAN, with the ability to hang virtual stuff off it.

E&T: At what point did you realise you needed this?

Taylor: We were getting to the point where we needed a lot of new servers. We had the money for the servers, we had the money for air-conditioning for the server room. What we did was take the budget that we would have spent on air-conditioning and spent that on virtualised servers instead. The Compellent SAN is set up to run VMware, which means you can take disks out of your servers - again saving in power and in heat. It enabled the whole 'make the most of the kit you've got' strategy.

E&T:A good strategy to have. So was that the way you sold it to the rest of the organisation, as a great return-on-investment opportunity?

Taylor: It was a factor in it, definitely. The Royal Horticultural Society has got a green policy, so anything that slots into that is another good justification. So we were looking for low power consumption, because it translates into cost savings in the long term.

E&T: The cost benefits are measurable? How does it impact the dreaded area of total cost of ownership (TCO)?

Taylor: Your TCO drops dramatically. If you can say that this SAN is 10 per cent better than others because it uses less cooling and uses less power, then it's a good driver, obviously supporting the purchase.

E&T: How do you think data storage as an issue is viewed in other areas IT? Do you believe that it receives sufficient attention?

Taylor: Data centre management and storage management - what I'm involved with - is a bit of a tightrope to walk - because people who are using it do not care about storage.

E&T: Do not care? Or do not want to care?

Taylor: They just expect it to be there, it's not something they ever think about, except if you run out of it. Consequently it's down to the data centre manager to practically manage their data provisioning and look at ways to get the most meat out of it. There are new technologies coming out, obviously the size of drives is increasing, different standards of drives coming out. There are things like solid state drives' This is all invisible to the users. It's a bit of an uphill battle to a certain extent for data centre managers to get adequate resourcing for what they do.

E&T:Lay people tend to think that storage is just about backup, wouldn't you agree?

Taylor: The other thing as well is, you've got all this data, and you got to back it up. You have got to have disaster recovery facilities available. That involves keeping two live copies, so that's doubling up your costs, and so on. There's a lot happening in data storage behind the scenes. Those who are not directly involved in it, they just really don't consider [the implications]. It's down to the data centre manager to deal with that; it's part of the job. They promote the fact this is a E F finite resource to be invested in over the long term to remain viable.

E&T:But is it an 'accepted' part of the job, or is it a frustrating part of the job?

Taylor: It's difficult because you're not in a position where you can affect that data. It is there, you just got to think long term about how it is going to grow, and also you've got to interact with your users as well and occasionally say, 'do you need everything? Are there duplicates in there?' [De-duplication is an issue.] De-duplication technology is gradually getting better, so that may come more to the forefront as well.

E&T: The new solutions have been in place for a while now; explain the benefits that they have brought you.

Taylor: It has become the hub of our data centre. What we initially saw as purely storage for our image project has now become the host for all of our virtual machines. We have also got a lot of physical servers that we are in the process of virtualising attached to it with active storage. We are keeping a huge a mount of other data on there as well, which has reduced our need for standalone disk and raid arrays, and suchlike - again reducing our cooling and power needs.

E&T: You sound like a satisfied customer.

Taylor: The Compellent staff are proactive. They have definitely helped in regards to staff time as a resource. A company like ours is not [operating on a] 24/7 [basis] - we have standard business hours; however, Compellent's support is proactive. If there's a fault they contact you. Even if it is out of hours they will be on the case, so it covers you [as a client], and [the arrangement] reduces staffing costs as well.

E&T: We've learnt about this project specifically, but what does your overall role entail?

Taylor: I ensure that the infrastructure is okay, get my hands dirty with cable work, pitch in with contractors right up to dealing with suppliers and providers. I monitor all the network devices. I look after all the hardware that hangs everything together for the RHS. I also administer the SAN, and look after general back-office systems like antivirus software, some database stuff: general troubleshooting. I'm also involved in future planning for the RHS as far as information technology is concerned.

E&T:It sounds like a wide-ranging remit.

Taylor: It is quite varied. People in other companies can get stuck in a niche whereby they only focus on one specific thing. I get to put my toe in a lot of different pools, which gives me a wide range of experience.

E&T:Do you find it hard to juggle all the operational elements? It seems like you have a lot of technological areas to stay on top of as it all moves forward.

Taylor: You have to keep up a bit, but it is all interrelated. Once a system is bedded in, you have got experience with it. You are okay until it reaches its end-of-life, and you replace it with something else, or the next version comes along. You have almost got a database in your head of things that commonly occur across systems. You refer to that, and if there is something that you can not pick up out of your own knowledge base, then you go and refer to another source to get that information. You have to be creative about how you get information - and how you manage it.

E&T:So that's your area, but there are other areas that encompass RHS's IT, right?

Taylor: We're under 'Operations'. There's also networking, telephony, the helpdesk. We've also got the development side. All in all there are about eight of us who keep the whole machine chugging along. The RHS actually has its own software developers who work on very niche, plant-related applications. Not a huge amount of off-the-shelf products fit our needs, so we develop quite a lot in-house. I am also a project manager for the RHS. Wisley Glasshouse - a 7m glasshouse - was the last one to be completed, and I oversaw all the IT for that. It's quite technically-enabled.

E&T: What other RHS projects are in progress?

Taylor:At the moment we have got two other projects on the go. These are Harlow Carr in Yorkshire, and Rosemoor in Devon. They are basically custom-built education centres that offer school parties educational services. The interesting thing about these buildings is that they are as environmentally friendly as you can get. They've got ground-source heat pumps, solar power, and so on. One is located in the middle of a wood, so it burns wood for energy.

E&T: How does all this green idealism impinge on IT operations?

Taylor: The idea is to make the running of these buildings as carbon neutral as possible. To contribute to that, we have been designing IT systems that offer low power consumption; so we are going to put thin client terminals into these sites. The power consumption of the particular make we have looked at is only 5W, much lower than a standard PC desktop; so we are replacing traditional PCs with those types of terminals wherever possible.

E&T: Do you find it hard to hunt down the right kit and components when you have got to think so green? Or are you finding that vendors are 'on the curve'?

Taylor: It is always an angle for the supplier. Power consumption and 'green' is right up there. You say you are interested in a solution that uses as little power as possible, and they have got all these specifications available that they will send over to you. These days they use it as a selling point.

E&T: That's good to hear. How do you see green IT evolving in the future at the RHS then?

Taylor: My personal view of the future is fully-virtualised. This may well include client access via virtual desktop interfaces. VMware is basically doing virtual PCs, which can replace traditional desktops.

E&T: How green can it get?

Taylor: [I believe that] In the future you'll get to a point where you do not need any hardware on a remote site at all. All you will need are terminals staff can connect to, and a router and whatever switch is sitting there; you'll need no servers onsite at all.

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