Last year, John Weeks stood in the data centre at the headquarters of US law firm Best Best & Krieger envisioning a forklift. As the newly hired IT director for this six-office, 310-employee firm, he had to solve some pressing problems inhibiting aggressive growth plans.

The 100-year-old law firm, one of California's largest, had evolved without a formal IT agenda despite relying on mission-critical applications for functions such as document management and billing. Weighing the firm down were an aged Novell NetWare 4 network, a patchwork of desktop operating systems, ancient email and word processing platforms, plus inadequate security, bandwidth and systems management.

Weeks set about transforming the rickety IT infrastructure into a model of the new data centre - a feat he wanted done in six months.

Virtualisation is key
Experience with the old, constantly failing IT systems made BB&K partners and other employees wary of trusting a fully centralised data centre, Weeks says, so he wanted a design that would allow offices to function separately. Plus some of the firm's critical custom billing applications wouldn't "play well with other applications" when sharing hardware, he describes.

A traditional design would have placed these on their own servers and included separate mini-data centres at each site - an expensive approach that would waste a lot of hardware capacity. Virtualisation, a tenet of the new data centre, provided the answer.

Integrator Agile360 pitched a data centre design that featured virtualisation software from VMware (recently acquired by EMC). With virtualisation, even those anti-social applications could be made to share servers. The virtualisation product "isolates each instance of an application, so the application doesn't necessarily need its own hardware," Weeks says.

Moreover, virtualisation gave Weeks the cost-efficient redundancy he needed, as "virtualised" primary servers can be backups, too. By encapsulating a specific virtual machine (an application and its operating system needs), any application can be nearly instantly ported to any available server.

Weeks bought more RAM for two HP ProLiant DL380 servers he had recently installed at the main Riverside data centre (for 8GB of RAM) and loaded VMware's ESX Server software on them. He similarly upgraded and outfitted five ProLiant ML370s installed at the remote offices. This gave the data centre many machines that could virtually operate as one - or as redundant servers. Weeks consolidated 54 outdated servers into 16 new servers running the VMware software.

With the addition of Microsoft Clustering Services, which Weeks is implementing now, the data centre servers also can fail over to one another while offering guaranteed performance even for demanding email and database applications. They also scale easily.

Because clustering requires a storage-area network, Weeks built a hefty 100GB Compaq 10000 Fibre Channel SAN in the Riverside data centre. "My design goals were to not have to buy hardware for three years," Weeks says. Compaq Insight Management server management software gave the data centre self-management functions such as auto discovery.

Client updates
Weeks replaced older Gateway desktops running Windows 98, WordPerfect and GroupWise with Dell 270s running Windows XP and Office XP, upgrading to Exchange in the back office as well. Plus, he outfitted all desktops with Altiris client management software. Gone were the days when IT had to be told when a systems-level failure occurred.

In the WAN, he replaced a managed frame-relay network with frame-relay service from SBC. While the Riverside office connects to the frame-relay WAN via a 3M-bit/sec ATM link, all remote offices access the company's WAN via frame-relay links. Direct Internet access is available from Riverside.

In addition, Weeks is replacing 128K-bit/sec ISDN links that had been used for backup with higher-speed connections such as metro Ethernet and DSL. Should a frame-relay link fail, users would then be able to tunnel into the corporate network via a VPN. Plus, at each office Weeks will load balance between the frame relay and high-speed Internet connections and routers will direct traffic over the lowest cost path, he says.

For LAN traffic, Weeks replaced stacked hubs with a Cisco Catalyst 4500 switch at each remote site. For the multi-floor Riverside office, which has several wiring closets, Weeks replaced hubs with Cisco 4506 or 3550 switches. Servers sit on 1G-bit/sec Ethernet segments while clients use 10/100M-bit/sec links.

As if this wasn't enough, Weeks also overhauled the document management system. He converted PC Docs from Windows 98 to XP and then outfitted remote offices with Citrix servers to give them better, fully remote access to the document management system. "The vision I'm selling is that information needs to be available anywhere," he says, adding that legal documents represent valuable intellectual property. His goal is to store and manage the firm's gold mine of resources more intelligently, and to make it more accessible.

With a new intelligent data centre online, he is doing just that.