Leveraging Virtualization’s Business Value

Look at how far virtualization has come. From its earliest roots as a way to squeeze more out of expensive mainframe computers, followed by its widespread adoption as a tool for consolidating overtaxed data centers, virtualization technology has morphed from a mere enabler of efficiency into a fast-emerging bottom-line contributor.

Companies from various industries and government agencies have been unlocking virtualization’s potential to transform the way IT capabilities are delivered. As a result, most IT executives no longer have to justify the benefits of virtualizing their computing assets.

“This is solidly mainstream technology at this point,” says John Burke, principal research analyst with Nemertes Research. “It is, in most companies, the default deployment option: You have to make a case for why not to virtualize.”

Such a case certainly won’t be made at Mazda North America, where virtualization has steadily risen to become a key part of the company’s IT strategy. Mazda’s virtualization path started in 2006, when it became clear that constant demand for new online applications had resulted in unmanageable server sprawl, recalls Barry Blakeley, infrastructure architect.

At the time, Mazda relied on a server leasing program that allowed it to refresh its hardware on a regular basis. Every time a server’s lease came up, the app running on it had to be moved to—and tested on—a new physical server before the old server could be swapped out.

“Every year, it became an increasingly laborious process to migrate apps to new hardware for the lease refresh,” says Blakeley. “Virtualization was a way to alleviate the problem.”

It also proved to be the tip of a giant iceberg, as virtualization took off at Mazda. First, the company chose VMware’s vSphere as its virtualization platform, and then updated to Dell PowerEdge servers, which could run VMware’s
operating system and are designed for virtual environments.

Whereas Mazda used to have 200 physical servers running a similar number of apps, Blakeley says the company now runs 490 virtual machines on just 28 host servers, with most using about 5 percent of the CPU’s capacity and between 44 and 85 percent of available memory.

All that server virtualization eventually introduced a storage issue, as Mazda’s arrays grew larger to support more application data—improving capacity but not performance. With the company eyeing virtualization of its mission-critical SAP financial system, Blakeley knew the company needed a virtualized storage area network to support its ambitions, as well as beefed-up network bandwidth to keep up with the increased flow of data.

The result was a network upgrade from a 1GB connection to 10GB, followed by the deployment of Dell Compellent, a “fluid-data” virtual storage solution that enables Mazda to automatically store data on any of three tiers based on predefined storage profiles. Those improvements spurred a desktop virtualization initiative that’s just getting under way.

Mazda’s server and storage virtualization projects have already delivered substantial value. The company has cut its annual spending on physical servers by 60 percent; reduced the time required for backup processes to six hours from 16; enabled IT to take a complete system snapshot, including databases, in just 30 seconds; and seen storage system performance gains of up to 400 percent. All the improvements led to the one thing companies want most from IT operations: “We’re able to respond quicker to business needs,” says Blakeley.

One of the most valuable lessons from Mazda’s decision to keep building on its virtualization successes is that, to an extent, the more you invest in virtualization, the bigger the return on investment. When Nemertes did an analysis of virtualization ROI in 2009, it found that companies virtualizing 15 to 50 physical servers could expect a three-year return of 166 percent; those virtualizing 50 to 150 units were likely to get a 350 percent return; and those that virtualized
more than 150 servers could anticipate a 500 percent return.