By Tom Steinert-Threlkeld While operational and capital savings were the initial drivers behind Credit Suisse's four-year-old effort to create a virtual infrastructure, the Zurich-based financial services firm says the real payoff is increased speed and agility. Credit Suisse in 2004 announced plans to spend $100 million on a new applications development, securities operations and data center facility in Raleigh, N.C. But the center never got built. Instead, the firm opted to find ways to manage the growth of its trading and other operations within its existing IT infrastructure. That meant Credit Suisse had to accelerate its move into the virtual world, where physical servers, storage devices and communications channels get chopped up and the pieces managed as virtual machines. Turning all computing resources into virtual resources was the only logical path to meet a "real-world need" at Credit Suisse, according to Leslie Muller, VP of virtualization technologies at the time. The plan, he says, was to totally virtualize its global data centers by the end of 2010.

However, increased business agility has been a bigger benefit than the reduced spending on servers, workstations and networking gear, says Muller. When Bear Stearns collapsed and Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy last year, bulge-bracket firms like Credit Suisse had to take on defecting customers quickly. In such cases, reassigning capacity to critical uses overnight is imperative. "The window of opportunity is very small," says Muller. In day-to-day operations, Credit Suisse's derivatives unit has cut the time needed for large runs of risk assessments from eight hours to two. Calculations used to be handled in sequence in a single thread on a given processor, but virtualization has allowed traders to set up the equivalent of three machines to run simultaneously on each core processor. Similarly, traders who used to keep three workstations under their desktops have been able to replace them with slightly more than one virtual workstation each. For temporary additional power, they can sign up for "disposable" workstations that last 30 or 60 days. Previously, it could take months to get new servers--or even a desktop computer--in place. Now, the task has largely become reassigning computing power to new activities or individual users. Credit Suisse uses a homegrown system to track requests for new virtual machines, as well as their activation and expiration dates. When a machine's life ends or its user departs, the processing power is automatically returned to the pool. This flexible use of power and bandwidth also makes it quicker to introduce new financial products, notes Muller. Currently, users worldwide share storage, applications and processing power in four Credit Suisse data centers, where racks of blade servers are used to create the digital equivalent of 2,700 servers and 8,000 desktop computers. The savings over operating the same number of physical machines is more than $3 million a year, according to Muller, who estimates that the energy savings alone paid for all the equipment purchased for the project. Credit Suisse is not going to meet its goal of total virtualization until "much further down the road," says Muller, but it will finish stages of the initiative in 2010 and 2012.

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