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Virtualisation – do not be afraid

A blueprint for enjoying the benefits of virtualisation with confidence


Perhaps the greatest risk to the advancement of any technology is fear of the unknown; in the case of IT, this is doubly true. End-users, whose lives are intended to be made easier by technology are often fearful of two things; technology taking over and rendering them obsolete, and their own inability to adapt to it and use if effectively. Equally, IT administrators, DBA's and technicians, who should be the greatest supporters of innovation, can fear the technologies with which they are unfamiliar, those which they perceive to be unreliable, or those which take them beyond their comfort zone.

When it comes to virtualisation, this double-whammy of doubt led to the whole concept remaining for a long while in the limbo of ‘early-adoption’. Let’s not forget that it’s a technology dating back almost 15 years when VMware filed their first patents, and yet it’s only in the last six or seven years that it’s really come alive. But even though this was the case, not everyone was convinced; DBA's lagged behind in recognising the value of virtualisation for databases, and it’s only in the last few years that it has become routine to virtualise your database engines alongside your directory servers, file and print servers and web servers.

Line-of-business systems have presented another quandary for the IT department. This is in no small part a historical thing; the ERP system has traditionally been a bit of a ‘black box’ for the internal support team, with specialist consultants riding in on white chargers to implement, configure and maintain the system behind closed doors. The mysteries of ERP were kept closely guarded secrets to be passed down only to a chosen few, so when it came to virtualisation, it was no surprise that many organisations stopped short of taking the plunge and moving their key line-of-business software to a virtual platform.

Only the realisation of actual benefits from virtualisation was sufficient to begin breaking this cycle of doubt. Improvements in the availability and reliability of business systems were obvious to business leaders, who also saw reduced maintenance costs, fewer requests for capital expenditure when new systems were implemented and faster deployment of new technology; except when it came to the ERP system, so they began to ask…

Why not?

The benefits of virtualisation don’t change when applied to different systems and technologies. The principles of high availability, reduced TCO, simplified management and maintenance, scalability and agility are the same whether you’re virtualising a Windows file and print server, an Oracle database server, or an SAP server. Having everything aligned with one strategy pays dividends; if virtualisation is the way to go, the way the organisation wants to work, let’s get on with it. Let’s go for the whole kit ‘n caboodle, the whole nine yards… let’s virtualise the lot and have done with it.

OK, so it’s not quite as simple as that. There are arguments to be made, a business case to be formed, and change-resistant folks to be persuaded; not forgetting the ERP vendor too, right? Well, actually no. Take SAP as an example; they’ve been building support for virtualisation into their products for years, and publishing guidance, help and support for SAP customers wanting to deploy or move SAP into a virtualised environment. Vendor support for virtualisation is one of the best arguments for undertaking it, and lends massive support to the arguments for doing it.

Other elements of the business case for virtualising your core systems will depend on the individual organisation; but there are key themes to be borne in mind which will apply to them all. A virtualised environment brings a single platform upon which all your systems will run; gone are the multiple servers of different ages, warranty statuses, configurations and manufacturers. With this standardisation comes a reduced administrative burden; fewer technologies = fewer required specialist skills.

Agility is a cornerstone of the virtualisation concept; flexibility for growth and change comes as standard. Need a new server? No capital expenditure request, no approval process, no RfQ, purchase order and invoice; just build the server and go. Need to test a new upgrade? Clone the live server and go; or snapshot it for a rollback plan. Need more RAM in the database server? Allocate some more shared resources. All of these examples would expose a business to risk, take time, or attract costs in a physical environment. With your virtualised business platform, these are just the day-to-day business of managing the IT function.

Avoiding issues

Waterstons knows why people are apprehensive; we’ve been there and seen it. Nothing undermines a technology and induces fear so much as a great product poorly implemented, and unfortunately that’s a story we’ve heard many times; so addressing concerns of this kind is a big part of what we do. Thanks to a well-proved methodology, we’ve been able to demonstrate time and time again that not only can virtualisation deliver on its promises, but it can do so quickly, reliably, and with minimal disruption to normal business activity.

Everything we do hinges on understanding the client and their systems; we talk to them about what they do, how they do it and why; we look at what technology they’ve invested in and the reasoning for doing so; we research the products they use, their competitors, and their industry. Knowing a business inside out helps us understand their vision and strategy, and only systems and architecture aligned with strategy will deliver maximum benefits to the organisation.

Poorly implemented virtualisation often results from a lack of planning; and the robust capacity planning exercise Waterstons undertakes at the outset of any new virtualisation project is another which is intended to give us a detailed understanding of the operation of the business. Taking into account current server use, growth rates, peak loads, types of systems and their resource requirements and the profile and pattern of resource usage, the status quo combined with our understanding of the business and its strategy allows us to predict future requirements for growth.

This hard work of planning and architecting the solution requires specialist expertise, and we are fortunate to have a very talented storage and virtualisation team. With widespread product knowledge and experience implementing a range of different hardware and software, they don’t just design but also implement the solutions; constantly learning lessons, improving skills and experience, and sharing ideas and knowledge they are ‘the pointy end’ of our virtualisation offering.

Onwards to implementation and a staged approach is common; starting with the least business-critical systems to establish that the platform is reliable and stable, then moving through more important services until ultimately everything has been migrated. This is a process that can take from a few days to a number of months dependent upon the customer’s appetite for risk and the type and scale of systems involved.

Of course things don’t end there, and it’s critical that a new environment is adequately maintained on a pro-active basis; whether it’s applying the latest security and performance enhancing patches, upgrading software versions to take advantage of new features or monitoring performance and potential bottlenecks it’s important to take a long-term view of support. The ethos of ‘fix before it breaks’ is important to us. When it comes to your business systems, these days there’s rarely such a thing as ‘acceptable downtime’.

Quorn Foods

One of Waterstons’ virtualisation projects in recent years was undertaken for a long-standing customer, the manufacturer of the world’s most widely available meat alternative, Quorn. With a large IT estate approaching end-of-life, a requirement to break existing ties with their previous parent company following sale in 2011, and aspirations to deploy further technologies including remote desktop services (RDS) for agile working, Quorn were faced with a choice of traditional server and desktop hardware replacements, or implementing a virtualisation solution.

A proof-of-concept was commissioned, using a VMware and DataCore solution to provide RDS as a trial which proved a great success. This feasibility study took into account desktop applications, the SAP client and other line-of-business applications in order to accurately reflect the real impact of thin-client working on a selected group of users. With the benefits of virtualisation clear to Quorn based on the results of this trial, the next stage in the process was to extend its reach across the business. Every business wants to maximise the value of its investment, and of course Quorn is no exception; accommodating this requirement was a key goal of the project to scale-up the virtualisation and remote desktop environment. As such, the proof-of-concept environment was re-purposed and built into the production solution, which consisted of a high-availability vSphere cluster, DataCore Fibre Channel SAN, and a new local area network, architected and implemented to remove single points of failure and maximise resilience and performance.

The results were significant; users noticed immediate performance improvements and increased responsiveness from applications. Backup time was reduced to under four hours and operational expenditure was reduced on support and management time. A full datacentre was shrunk into two server racks; with power and cooling requirements hugely reduced alongside a considerable reduction in downtime. Finally, all of the infrastructure could be managed from just one console, with all critical operational information available in just one place, as just one version of the truth.

All of these improvements provided further evidence of the benefits of virtualisation; it was no surprise then, when some months later the SAP hardware environment, which was rapidly approaching end-of-life, was brought into sharp focus as another potential candidate for transition. Faced with the option of replacing hardware with hardware, or with scaling the virtualisation platform to cope with the additional load, a further capacity planning exercise was carried out which showed the latter represented the lowest-total-cost option.

Capacity planning showed disk performance to be the most significant critical factor, so the DataCore SAN was expanded with auto-tiering storage encompassing high performance SSDs as first tier, and 10K and 7.2K SAS arrays as second and third tiers, and a DR site was added to the environment to provide additional resilience and recoverability. With the platform in place, Quorn’s SAP consultants built a new SAP environment so that testing could take place.

Testing was extensive, but successful; with UAT on the virtual environment completed a full transition was given the go-ahead and the live physical environment was cut over to the virtualised SAP implementation during a period of weekend downtime. Alongside the transition, database recoverability was improved by implementing SQL log-shipping to the DR site to further reduce the business risk posed by any significant unplanned outage.

The advantages of the move to a virtualised platform for SAP were both immediately obvious in some cases, and in others invisible, and any lingering fears over the project were quickly removed. If any members of the senior team were concerned, they were soon won over by the changes they saw; an example being some key processes which had previously taken up to twenty minutes to run now running in twenty seconds. If the effectiveness of the project were measured in terms of noticeable impact on users, it would be another positive result; user experience being impacted only in a positive way.

No longer is there any requirement for scheduled maintenance windows or out-of-hours working; maintenance of the servers supporting SAP and other services can happen during the day, with little or no impact on the user experience and minimal risk of unplanned downtime resulting from any issues encountered. Ongoing expenditure is minimised, and the IT department are more relaxed; in fact they now say that the SAP environment is no longer treated as being ‘different’; it’s “just another set of servers”.

Building experience

Whilst Quorn is a great success story, as an organisation they are not alone. We’ve been working with other large businesses to virtualise their core systems such as SAP. Having built a similar environment for a customer in the energy sector, the SAP implementation consultants deploying the software to the new platform gave us the compliment that they were working with the fastest virtualised SAP environment that they had ever come across.

Another customer, faced with the requirement to transition away from a previous part-owner who had hosted SAP, took advantage of the flexibility of a virtualised environment to not only scale up to accommodate their ERP solution, but also to build in capacity for further growth and to improve the resilience and availability of their solution. With the SAP servers in place, their data was seamlessly transferred and brought up and running without incident or unplanned downtime.

All of the organisations we have worked with have enjoyed the major benefits discussed at the beginning of this article; lower TCO as a result of greater reliability, lower maintenance costs, reduced power and cooling and better visibility of performance and resource use. They have seen improved performance and user experience, reduced deployment time for new services and software, and the productivity improvements which go hand-in-hand.

Perhaps most significant, businesses which place the faith which Quorn and others have shown in virtualisation are experiencing the comfort which comes from reducing risk; greater availability of everything from email to ERP and document management to printing.

The ‘black box’ barriers of specialist systems are being broken down, and rightly so. High-availability, disaster recoverability and lower TCO should not just be the preserve of ‘simple’ services, and the expertise to deliver those benefits to critical line-of-business systems should not be limited to a few highly-paid experts; our experience tells us that this is no longer the case. Vendors like SAP produce software which is ready, willing and able to go virtual; so should you be.

Jisc | Data Matters

26 January 2021

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