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Virtualization riches

Dec 26, 20055 mins
Data CenterIBM

Application virtualization has the power to cut costs, improve security and ease management, early adopters find.

Virtualization helps companies manage applications.

Three years ago, IT officials at Heartland Financial USA were in a jam. They wanted to migrate from distributed computing to a centralized terminal services environment using Citrix Systems. But they had no way to determine a hardware budget for the project.

Virtualized environments, if not application virtualization  

“We knew we’d need to create silos in the Citrix server farm based on application conflicts, but we didn’t know which of [our 160 applications] would work well together and which wouldn’t. Not knowing how many silos we would need made it impossible to cost out the hardware,” explains Marti Vandemore, vice president of IS at the Dubuque, Iowa, regional banking firm.

A light bulb went off for the IT executives while listening to a Softricity presentation at the Citrix iForum user conference later that year. As the vendor explained how its virtualization software lets applications run independently of the host operating system and one another, they realized this newfangled technology might be the answer to their problem. Because these “containerized” applications could run on a single server without conflict, they would not need those server silos that were causing them such budgetary grief.

Application virtualization products, from Softricity as well as IBM Meiosys, Trigence and others, are distinguished by their ability to isolate an application in a logical container. The container, which holds everything the application needs to operate – meaning its core executables and binary code files – acts as an intermediary between the application and the operating system. Individual configuration settings and other non-essentials live outside the container, says Warren Wilson, an analyst with Summit Strategies, in a recent research report.

This differs from application treatment within a virtualized server environment, a la VMware. With server virtualization, for example, different applications and operating systems may coexist on a single server, but the applications remain dependent on the operating system. System overhead and performance would remain issues when dealing with applications that require their own operating-system instances, Wilson says in the report, adding that application virtualization efforts began as a way to address server virtualization shortcomings.

At Heartland Financial, the IT team hesitated to go with the largely untested application virtualization technology but then decided the pros outweighed the cons, Vandemore says. Application virtualization, via the Softricity Desktop, would facilitate the IT team’s move to centralized support of Heartland’s nearly 60 banking locations across nine states. With that centralization would come a more secure environment that would be easy to back up, patch and keep in compliance with auditing regulations, he adds.

//Virtuous technology

As Warren Wilson, Summit Strategies analyst, spells out in a recent report, application virtualization can:

Cut capital costs by enabling greater consolidation of IT resources.
Cut operational costs by making IT systems easier and less expensive to manage.
Free up resources for strategic initiatives.
Speed deployment of new applications.
Drive adoption of dynamic computing.
Source: “Virtual Applications: Booster Rockets for Dynamic Computing?”

Within six months, IT began migrating to the centralized computing environment that now comprises 35 Citrix servers supporting almost 800 concurrent users. It has virtualized more than 80% of applications for a user population that almost exclusively relies on thin clients, says Shane Nicely, the bank’s assistant vice president of IS.

The benefits are mounting: User support is much easier, with help-desk calls lasting 80% less time than previously. Change management for Sarbanes-Oxley Act compliance is far less onerous, as IT no longer needs to test upgrades and patches for silo conflicts and to make sure they don’t put the application into non-compliance. The application environment is more secure, with patch deployment taking one-fifth the time previously required and disaster-recovery planning simplified. Plus, IT has been able to maintain its help desk staff size despite the bank’s aggressive growth, Vandemore says, adding that he expects to realize payback on the investment well within his initial two-year target.

The advantages provided by this technology have far-reaching business implications, Summit Strategies’ Wilson says. “This technology can help companies reduce overhead and align IT investments more closely to business needs and processes,” he says.

Such has been the case at Lend Lease, a multinational construction management company with global IT operations managed from an Atlanta data center. Before implementing Softricity’s SoftGrid application virtualization platform, deploying a new application meant a business unit needed to buy three servers – one for the application, the second for redundancy and the third for testing. The application may serve only a handful of employees one-third of the day, but no matter, says Jonathan O’Brien, senior systems engineer for Lend Lease. It was imperative to keep each region’s applications separated so that IT could make changes without affecting another region’s ability to do business, he explains.

As a result, Lend Lease’s Citrix server farm took on monstrous proportions. At the peak, between June and October  2004, IT maintained 80 servers, most of which sat idle two-thirds of the day, O’Brien says. The servers supported about 25 application suites, encompassing roughly 150 published applications, he adds. Since December 2004, when IT began the migration to application virtualization, it has cut the number of servers to 15. Savings for the business units have racked up as they now share the server bill, he says.

“That’s been the primary benefit – that we are able to pass on significant savings to the business units while running the same applications at or better than the performance level we were before,” O’Brien says. “And the business units are now coming to us for more types of applications knowing that they aren’t going to have to write a big check for three servers, plus the operating system, virus protection and more, he adds. “My phone just keeps on ringing.”

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