Many CIOs wonder how far and how fast they can run with virtualization right now. Once you get an initial taste of the cost
savings, flexibility, and speed of provisioning that server virtualization enables, you want to make a fast break for a
larger victory. Vincent Biddlecombe, CTO of
doesn’t wonder anymore: He just completed an instructive sprint.
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Since mid-2007, Biddlecombe has virtualized almost all the production servers at Transplace, a third-party transportation
logistics provider. (The company helps customers such as retail chain stores maximize efficiency in their supply chain and
shipping activities.) And he’s been running his company’s most critical application—a home-grown transportation
system—on a VMware ESX environment for a month now, with no major
By the way, Biddlecombe didn’t have any virtualization or
expertise in house among his 100 IT staffers when he started
this project: “We were a Sun group,” he says. To address this issue, he hired a consulting partner,
, to bring VMware knowledge to his group.
Timing is Everything
For Transplace, the 2007 sprint toward virtualization made sense on both a business level and a technology level, Biddlecombe
says. The business desire: Transplace works with its customers via
, so the company needs the best
scalability, availability and manageability they can get for hosting customer data. Virtualization appealed for both disaster
recovery and scalability reasons, Biddlecombe says. “We can simply add capability as we need it.”
On the technology side, Transplace’s internal systems were due for a facelift. In early 2007, Transplace decided to move its
production data center from the corporate office in Plano, Texas, to an offsite co-location facility in nearby Dallas.
(Transplace also has a test/development and disaster recovery facility in Lowell, Ark.) At about this time, the company was
due to upgrade its server hardware, Biddlecombe says, so it made sense to roll out the virtualization effort with that server
For Transplace’s database applications, he switched from Sun servers (running
mid-range servers (p570 servers using the Power6 processor and
running AIX). For Transplace’s middle-tier servers, he switched from
PowerEdge 2950 servers, using VMware’s ESX Server software for virtualization. (For storage,
Transplace chose Network Appliance’s FAS 3070 storage systems.)
“We wanted to provide an environment where we could have maximum availability between our production and disaster recovery
data centers,” Biddlecombe says. “By using a combination of VMware with the storage, we’ve effectively copied our servers out
to the disaster recovery center.”
Today, Transplace’s production environment is almost completely virtualized, and Biddlecombe estimates it will be 95 percent
virtualized by year’s end. That’s quite an achievement, says Burton Group research analyst Chris Wolf. “From my experience,
organizations that are able to virtualize 40 percent of their servers in a year are doing really well,” Wolf says.
In total, Biddlecombe’s IT group now runs about 110 VMs. In fact, the only significant applications that he’s not running on
a VM right now are his Microsoft Exchange servers and SQL server databases—both known for being extremely I/O
intensive. (They hog resources on physical servers to the point that it doesn’t make sense to virtualize them in many cases).
The Mission-Critical App Goes Virtual
The thought of running mission-critical ERP applications on a virtual machine makes many CIOs nervous—too nervous to
try it (even now that ERP giant SAP has announced support for
its products running on VMware.) But not Biddlecombe. As for Transplace’s mission-critical app, a transportation management
system, the first month of its virtualized run, coming to a close now, has proven pretty uneventful, Biddlecombe says. He saw
no major pitfalls or performance issues.
This transportation management system determines, for instance, which orders need to be shipped together for consolidation
purposes, how the order should be best shipped (parcel, full truckload or other options), which shipping carrier is optimal,
and so on. This system also handles freight audit and payment. Effectively serving as Transplace’s ERP system, the
transportation system handles 4 million shipments per year, or about $2.75 billion in transportation spending annually.
Developed in-house using Java, it runs on
WebLogic application servers and
Oracle for database work.
Biddlecombe has dedicated 50 VMs to support the components of the transportation system running on WebLogic, and 50 to 60 VMs
for some other components and everything else.
To determine the right number of VMs and balance workloads on the servers running those crucial VMs, the IT team did
extensive prototyping. But they had an advantage that not all companies have with their ERP systems: Since the transportation
system software was developed in-house, Biddlecombe’s team knew a lot of its performance quirks already. “We’re intimately
familiar with what our software needs,” says Biddlecombe, who has been with Transplace for three years and served as CTO for
Interestingly, Biddlecombe has not found it necessary yet to invest in any new third-party management tools from any of the
virtualization upstarts, though he is scoping out one emerging need. Favoring a layered monitoring approach, he currently
uses HP’s Business Availability Center tools at the top level, HP‘s SiteScope
at the next level (measuring factors like memory utilization in every app in every VM) and then network and database
monitoring tools. He’s also using VMware’s vMotion tool to move VMs around as needed.
“The one area we haven’t addressed is, are all the VMs sized properly,” Biddlecombe says. “I think we’ve given some VMs more
memory than they need. Our emphasis to date has been application performance. The last layer will be reducing VM resources so
they have just enough,” he says. The IT team can get some of the memory data from the SiteScope tool, but they have to do one
VM at a time, he notes. This is the need that’s making him consider finding another management tool.
For securing the virtual environment, Transplace’s IT team applies the same security tools (McAfee antivirus and others) and
practices that they would with a physical server, Biddlecombe says.
Provisioning in 30 Minutes or Less
As for metrics to prove his success, Biddlecombe says he wasn’t able to do many before and after comparisons because so many
factors changed at once: a new data center location, new hardware and all those new VMs all got wrapped up into the same
effort. What he can measure however, is how quickly he can provision a new server or new computing power to the business
side. It used to take him a week to provision a server: Now it takes 30 minutes.
“We have gained a dramatically increased capacity to provision new servers, and more scalability,” he says.
The ability to scale to add VMs right away helps Transplace deal with any spikes in data throughput from its customers:
“Because we’re SaaS, our customers benefited immediately,” he says.
And when IT wants to create a test and development VM, or a business executive needs a new customer demonstration
environment, IT can do it within the half hour, he notes.
In another benefit of the highly-virtualized environment, the servers at the disaster recovery site can serve double duty,
Biddlecombe says. They can be test VMs one moment, and disaster recovery the next. “We don’t have to have 100 servers just
standing there waiting for disaster,” he says.
What’s next on Biddlecombe’s to-do list with regards to virtualization? He’ll continue to ensure that the backup strategy is
solid, he says. “There’s this concept that I’m putting a lot of eggs in one basket,” he says. “We use VMware Consolidated
Backup, but you also have to make sure all your OS patches are applied, backups done properly. You want to make sure you’re
doing the blocking and tackling.”