Near-total virtualisation makes SaaS vendor more flexible

US software and services provider Transplace virtualised 90% of its servers in just six months last year, bucking the trend of many IT departments that only carry out virtualisation sparingly.

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US software and services provider Transplace virtualised 90% of its servers in just six months last year, bucking the trend of many IT departments that only carry out virtualisation sparingly.

Virtualisation can save money and space in the datacentre, but for Transplace the most compelling benefit was flexibility of IT systems. It planned the upgrades during the first half of 2007 and then implemented them over the year's final six months

"We're always needing to spin up a demo or test environment for one reason or another. With virtualisation, it's easy, I don't need to go and find servers," said Vincent Biddlecombe, chief technology officer at Texas-based Transplace. "It certainly allows us to scale much easier, it allows us to provide servers much faster. It helps tremendously with the ability to support dynamic environments and ... truly viable disaster recovery."

IT departments using virtualisation have on average applied the tools to only 24% of servers, though that number is expected to grow to 45% by 2009, according to Forrester Research. Transplace has already doubled 2009's expected level of virtualisation.

Transplace has 550 employees including 100 in IT, many of whom are busy writing custom software that runs on BEA WebLogic. A year ago, the company decided to move its production datacentre from its corporate headquarters to a co-located facility in Dallas, and figured it would be an ideal time to upgrade servers and storage.

The company was running Sun systems almost exclusively, but switched to Network Appliance for storage, partly because the vendor offers software that makes it easy to replicate storage from production to a disaster recovery facility, Biddlecombe said.

Then Transplace replaced its Sun database servers with IBM's System p570 based on POWER6 processors, partly because of p570's logical portioning system that let Transplace run multiple instances of Oracle's database software on a single server.

Finally, Transplace decided to switch from Sun to Dell servers at the Dell server layer, with VMware ESX running over 100 virtual machines.

But there are challenges to implementing virtualisation, Biddlecombe said. "There are definitely network issues. You need more network interface cards, because you're communicating much more between your central storage and the virtual machines. Your whole operating system, you whole virtual server is now on the virtual storage. There are network infrastructure issues you have to understand and plan for and deal with."

And he was not that impressed by server cost savings. Additional costs for VMware software and extra network infrastructure can double the price of a regular server, he says, but Transplace is definitely saving some money, since Biddlecombe said the company runs seven to 10 virtual servers on each machine.

"Our rules [today] are that we don't virtualise anything that needs more than 4 CPU cores or is very I/O-intensive," he said. Microsoft Exchange and SQL Server falls into that category for now, but Biddlecombe predicts that "as virtual machines can address more memory, as virtual machines can have more than four cores, I would expect within 18 months we won't have a single server that's not virtualised."

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