Gannett dishes on VMware

An early adopter tells how he came to love server virtualization.

Ask Eric Kuzmack about partnering with VMware during the virtualization specialist's early days, and he sounds more pragmatic than pioneering.

"Yeah, most of our peers thought we were nuts," says Kuzmack, IT architect at news conglomerate Gannett in Silver Spring, Md. "But like a lot of companies, we had lots of [x86] servers running at very low utilization rates, around 5% or 10%, and we saw on paper what the benefits of virtualizing those servers could be."

Convinced by the prospects, in 2002 Gannett began testing VMware's ESX Server - and became a trailblazer in what is one of the decade's fastest-growing industry trends. Gannett made a sound decision: Today, it runs more than 400 virtual machines on dozens of physical servers.

Although he admits he wasn't always so sure x86 platforms would be able to support multiple workloads, Kuzmack says he doesn't feel Gannett took a gamble on VMware. "We approached it methodically. We didn't rush into it," he says. "We continuously examined what kinds of workloads would be appropriate vs. not appropriate."

In addition, Gannett waited for VMware's management tools before beginning the ESX Server deployment. Kuzmack began beta-testing those tools, wrapped in a package called VirtualCenter, in the spring of 2003 as he moved ESX Server into production. VirtualCenter, which provides a single interface for deploying and managing virtual machines, includes VMotion, technology that moves running virtual machines from one physical server to another without disruption. The management package became generally available in the fall of 2003.

Without VirtualCenter and VMotion, VMware users could streamline management by eliminating the sprawl of one- and two-processor servers, but they still had to deal with managing operating systems and applications that ran in virtual containers on the hardware, Kuzmack says. VirtualCenter and VMotion ended the tedious work of logging on to each host server and managing virtual machines individually - and made the virtualization software capable of handling enterprise workloads.

"Management is a big issue as you run more and more virtual machines. . . . And being able to move virtual machines around [with VMotion] eased our concerns about having all of our eggs in one basket," he says.

VirtualCenter and VMotion updates introduced as part of VMware's Infrastructure 3 release this past June take the management features an important step forward, Kuzmack says, because they automatically monitor resource availability and dynamically move virtual machines to make the best use of available compute resources.

"VMware really does an excellent job of listening to its customers, as far as implementing new features and new technologies," he says. That made being an early user particularly beneficial, because VMware was open to ideas and suggestions about how to improve its software. "We provided feedback all along," he says.

Convincing performance

How Gannett grew to love VMware

 Deployment timeline
1999: Gannett's IT department is aware of VMware's workstation virtualization product, but isn't interested in it. "We treated that as kind of an idle curiosity, generally meant for the developer," says Eric Kuzmack, IT architect.

2002: Gannett IT executives attending an IBM conference see a demo of VMware's recently introduced GSX Server and ESX packages and reconsider. "If it worked, x86 server virtualization could save us a substantial amount of money," Kuzmack says.

Summer 2002: The IT group evaluates ESX Server 1.5.1.
Spring 2003: The IT group beta tests VMware's new VirtualCenter management software, including VMotion, and puts ESX Server 2.0.1 into production.
Fall 2003: The IT group begins using ESX Server 2.5 to support business-critical applications.
Summer 2006: The company has more than 400 virtual machines on dozens of physical servers.

Gannett started with about six virtual machines on two physical boxes, but the number of virtualized workloads on the four-processor servers grew to about 40 within months, Kuzmack says. "We didn't have problems. It just worked and it continued to perform well as we added load to the systems," he says. "The platform convinced the skeptics, and the cost savings convinced management."

Kuzmack won't quantify cost savings, saying only that ROI is "appropriately large." Gannett saves because it no longer runs a single application on a single x86 server, a practice that would mean even greater inefficiencies today because servers are becoming increasingly powerful, he says.

"The horsepower of the hardware has far surpassed the rate at which application demands are growing," he says. "Had we not been using VMware, we'd be purchasing more physical boxes and they would be even more underutilized than they were then. That's where virtualization comes into play. We're saving money by not having to buy physical servers."

Kuzmack says he believes VMware is heading in the right direction, but he's paying close attention to other vendors as the market matures. "The market is getting interesting," he says. "And competition is always good - even from the perspective of a pretty heavy VMware customer."

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