Managing the Virtual World
By Philip J. Gill
Oracle VM consolidates servers and makes applications more available, reliable, and manageable.
In an era of tight IT budgets, complex multitier computing infrastructures, and dynamic and fast-changing business and user needs, virtualization offers many potential benefits: lower hardware and maintenance costs, higher CPU utilization, simplified systems management, high reliability, and easy deployments, to name a few. IT organizations have deployed virtualization technology to realize server consolidation, but they’re also looking for the benefits that virtualization can deliver to their business applications.
“The killer app for virtualization has been server consolidation,” says Al Gillen, program vice president for systems software at market research firm International Data Corporation (IDC).
Gillen sees server consolidation through virtualization as a solution to server sprawl.
“The virtualization layer allows users to ramp up the density of their applications, staging more applications on the same physical server,” he explains. “Because each set of applications is partitioned off into a separate virtual machine with a separate operating system, you get the best of both worlds. You get the density you need, but you don’t increase your dependency on any single operating image. So if you have a system that fails, it only affects the one virtual machine, not all of them.”
Gillen also sees virtualization as a way to improve application deployment and manageability.
“Over time, we expect that enterprises will need to deliver internal IT resources more like an external service provider would, allowing for rapid deployment and efficient management of business-critical applications,” says Gillen. “By using application-centric virtualization solutions like Oracle VM 3.0, organizations are deploying a strong foundation that will support an operational transformation in their datacenters, when the time is right for their business.”
Window of Opportunity
Founded in 1925, Pella Corporation saw virtualization as a way to reduce hardware purchase and software maintenance costs, but management has been pleasantly surprised by additional savings and benefits. The company, based in Pella, Iowa, has 8,000 employees at 12 manufacturing locations and 200 Pella Window and Door Showrooms in the U.S. and Canada.
As a leading national manufacturer of windows and doors, the privately held company has been particularly challenged by the state of the real estate and construction industries. “The reality is it’s a harsh economy out there,” says James Thomas, director of IT operations at Pella.
Back in late 2008, Thomas and other IT staffers at Pella began to investigate ways to control or even reduce costs. “The money we were spending just on hardware and software maintenance was getting very high,” explains John McConeghey, IT manager at Pella.
Indeed, after analyzing costs and savings, the IT staff realized it could recover the cost of a move to virtualization, including new servers and software, in 11 months.
Using Oracle VM, Pella’s updated hardware infrastructure now supports 70 virtual machines (VMs), with another 20 already configured and reserved in standby mode, according to Dale Nelson, advanced administrator at Pella.
Although it considered other vendors’ virtualization offerings, Pella chose Oracle VM because of its tight integration with the rest of the Oracle software stack, including Oracle Linux, Oracle WebLogic Server, Oracle E-Business Suite, and Oracle Database. This integration not only makes it easier to deploy Oracle VM but also makes it easier to run business-critical applications efficiently in a virtual environment, says Nelson. For the IT staff at Pella, if problems should arise, there’s only one point of contact and one service call for the entire stack.
The Oracle VM-based VMs run in the middle tier, where Pella employees use various modules of Oracle E-Business Suite—including Oracle Financials and Oracle Manufacturing—to perform the day-to-day tasks that support Pella’s back-office business operations and manufacturing shop floor.
Besides the 11-month payback, Pella’s IT department has also realized significant savings in reduced power consumption, reduced administration costs, and greater server utilization. “On the old hardware, without virtualization, we were running at 35 to 40 percent CPU utilization,” says Nelson. “With new hardware and Oracle VM, we’re running at about 5 percent utilization for each VM.”
Other benefits aren’t so easily monetized, but they are substantial nonetheless. “A lot of our virtual servers are purpose-built for the applications that run on them,” adds McConeghey.
Building a Star on Earth
Scientists at the National Ignition Facility (NIF)—the world’s largest laser, located at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) facility—are using an Oracle VM-enabled virtualized server farm to recreate the physical environment and conditions that exist at the inside of the sun. The scientific understanding that results from NIF’s experiments could lead to an alternative to carbon-based energy sources that promises clean, sustainable, and essentially limitless energy based on nuclear fusion. The system is called LIFE—for Laser Inertial Fusion Energy.
“Fusion is the energy that powers the universe,” explains Tim Frazier, associate project manager of NIF at LLNL in Livermore, California. “In laymen’s terms, what we like to say is that fusion is what powers the stars. Everything that you see when you look at our sun or the stars in the night sky is essentially an extremely large version of NIF, where miniature stars will be smaller than the diameter of your hair.”
At NIF, a large, laser-based inertial confinement fusion device heats and compresses hydrogen fuel to the point at which a nuclear fusion reaction takes place. The device “ignites” the hydrogen particles and causes them to fuse together, creating heat and helium. This heat is the energy that can boil water to drive turbines that generate electricity for homes and businesses, all without creating carbon or fission waste products.
Each time NIF runs an experiment, cameras, oscilloscopes, and an array of instrumentation collect a series of measurements of the event that are stored initially in Oracle Database 11g. Later the researchers download those measurements into a variety of custom applications to study the results. For example, the analysis code can find the significance and meaning of the content of a picture of an event.
“From the raw data, scientists can compute the physical environment that occurred during the experiment,” Frazier says. “For example, from a picture of the 'bright spot’ that resulted during a shot, the scientists can determine how much energy the brightness of the spot represents.”
To store and manage this information, NIF’s server farm consists of 70 physical servers—a mix of SPARC and x86-based systems—running Oracle Solaris, Oracle Linux, Oracle WebLogic Server, and Oracle VM.
Being scientists, Frazier explains, the people at NIF conducted a series of experiments on competing virtualization software before choosing Oracle VM. These experiments consisted of creating a number of server configurations, both real and virtual, and coupling them with simulated workloads that reflect NIF’s ongoing experiments. In the end, NIF chose Oracle VM because its VMs provided essentially the same performance as NIF’s existing physical servers.
Performance testing was especially important because the user community of NIF scientists and researchers had reservations about the move to virtualization. They feared it would negatively affect the performance of their applications.
The physical servers at NIF now support 700 Oracle VM-based VMs that scientists and researchers use to analyze the results of their experiment.
“Virtualization has reduced risk,” says Frazier. “It has also normalized a heterogeneous computing infrastructure and given us a better disaster recovery story. This translates directly to greater availability of our infrastructure.”
Most of all, server virtualization was an economically feasible path to simplifying the computing infrastructure needed to support NIF's highly compute-intensive applications. For NIF, it wasn't so much a matter of cost cutting as cost avoidance. “It's not like we had 700 servers before,” Frazier notes. “It's only because of virtualization that we've been able to dedicate machines to specific workloads. In the old days of 'bare metal,' that would have been too wasteful, and we couldn't have afforded it. Virtualization is the way for us now at NIF, and we expect it to be for LIFE in the future.”
Philip J. Gill is a San Diego, California-based freelance writer.