ABM overcomes pro-VMware bias to adopt Microsoft's Hyper-V

After study, firm decides Hyper-V is ready to support the business.

Saving about $2 million was the primary reason international business-facility management firm ABM decided to convert its virtual infrastructure from VMware's vSphere to Microsoft’s Hyper-V, but that came only after a period of having Microsoft prove that its virtual environment was ready.

The ABM IT department had many skeptics who thought Hyper-V didn’t have the features with which to run a business, says Andre Garcia, assistant vice president, global infrastructure services for the company.

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But after running the business on vSphere for three years, Garcia took a second look at Hyper-V as part of his routine to check out all options when a technology license agreement is about to expire. So in 2012 he opted not to renew the vSphere license, choosing instead to continue only the maintenance contract.

“We maintained the maintenance on it so that we could continue running the VMware products we were already licensed for, but we didn’t enter into a new agreement with VMware. That was Step 1,” he says.

He wondered whether Hyper-V had become a sensible alternative. “Is it legitimate? Is it for real?” he says. “So I sent my two biggest VMware bigots to Hyper-V training.” They came back saying they thought ABM could run its business on the platform. Just to make sure, he took Hyper-V training himself.

During the course he spoke with Hyper-V customers who were using the platform, and that was the input that changed his mind. “It was actually hearing the testimony of other customers that made us question all of our misgivings about running on Hyper-V and actually started taking it seriously. The discussion turned from what is the absolute best virtualization platform to what can we run our business on.”

Once he decided that Hyper-V could in fact run the business, the financial savings made the decision easy. “There’s a cost - a significant cost - associated with being a VMware customer,” he says. “In order to upgrade to VCloud suite, we would have had to invest $1.6 million and increase our maintenance from $200,000 to $450,000 year over year to maintain this VMware monopoly in our environment.” He just couldn’t see paying that much to keep technology he felt the company already owned.

He says training, upgrading some hardware and performing conversions between Hyper-V and VMware all represent cash outlays, “but it’s well worth it. The savings is huge.” ABM was paying VMware between $500,000 and $550,000 per year for maintenance. “Right now we’re paying $200,000 [to Microsoft],” so there’s a $300,000 to $350,000 per year cost avoidance, he says.

The decision made the company buy a set of five HP DL580 servers to replace an existing five-node IBM SQL cluster for the Hyper-V deployment. Garcia also broke precedent by hiring a consultant, Fyrsoft, to help with the transition.

“If they were deploying a new set of physical servers that would be one thing, but this is our virtual infrastructure, and little mistakes in a virtualized infrastructure are amplified 100 fold,” Garcia says. “The smallest thing going wrong can really screw you up. So it’s not something that I want to risk.”

Still he wants his staff to learn as much as possible from the consultants, so the consultants don’t perform any of the installations or configurations – staff does the work at the direction of the consultants. “I call it on the job training,” he says. “If you’re going to engage a third party to help you make sure they’re helping you and not doing it for you. There’s a significant difference.”

The transition is ongoing and the staff is still a little tentative about Hyper-V, but that is changing. “I was predicting that probably by mid- or late-summer we would reach a tipping point where the team would finally be 100% comfortable with the idea of switching and that we would be completely off VMware by the end of this year.”

He says the team is learning the new virtual environment gradually by making and correcting mistakes. “They’re learning what it means to run a Hyper-V infrastructure as opposed to a VMware infrastructure, which do not operate exactly the same. There’s little idiosyncrasies that our team are going to need to familiarize themselves with in order to be 100% effective.”

The migration is being done cluster by cluster – application cluster, infrastructure, Citrix, SQL, messaging, etc. In all, the company runs 1,600 virtualized workloads on fewer than 60 hosts.

He says he hopes for tighter integration between Hyper-V and Microsoft System Center, which ABM uses to manage the hypervisors. A VMware host doesn’t tie in as effectively with System Center. “You’re always going to get more from a Microsoft product from a System Center agent running on it,” he says.

He says that in addition to adopting Hyper-V, the company is moving new workloads to Microsoft’s Azure public cloud rather than continuing to expand its on-prem data center. Not all new workloads will be moved to the cloud, depending on how the sensitivity of the data they handle is ranked. “The security classification of a system will drive whether it stays on-prem or goes into the cloud,” he says. “If it’s a low-medium risk it will go into the cloud, if it’s a high risk it will stay on-prem.”

ABM has also used the cloud to set up infrastructure overseas quickly in order to meet contractual agreements. Setting up a data center within Azure facilities in Ireland and the Netherlands was accomplished in a matter of hours rather than the three to six months it would have taken to set up its own hardware, and required no additional staff.

“We can support everything from the United States,” Garcia says. “We don’t need to deploy data centers all over the place. Doing so requires headcount.”

Tim Greene covers Microsoft and unified communications for Network World and writes the Mostly Microsoft blog. Reach him at tgreene@nww.com and follow him on Twitter@Tim_Greene.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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