From big iron to white boxes, Nationwide goes virtualFrom big iron to white boxes, Nationwide goes virtual

A mix of platforms that includes Linux on the mainframe, plus a clever charge-back system, help virtualization pay offA mix of platforms that includes Linux on the mainframe, plus a clever charge-back system, help virtualization pay off

While many IT shops see virtualization as a question of adopting EMC's VMware on servers running Windows or Linux, Nationwide Insurance has adopted the technology for both x86-based and mainframe-hosted servers. After all, notes Buzz Woeckener, the company's zLinux/Unix server manager, virtualization was invented for mainframes.

On the x86 server side, Nationwide reached 5,000 servers two years ago, running all sorts of departmental applications, notes Scott Miggo, vice president of technology solutions. "We were growing at a steady pace, so we wanted to control the server space and the costs for new development," he says. "A lot of our servers had only a 10 percent utilization rate," he notes, wasting much of the server capacity. Roughly half are production application servers and half are test-and-development servers.

Today, there are 3,500 physical servers in operation but still 5,000 instances under management. The VMware servers typically host a dozen instances per physical server. "We assume every new server or application can be virtualized," Miggo says. He expects to have more than 1,000 virtual servers running on 89 physical servers by 2009. His team works to tweak I/O requirements or settings for virtual servers that may have trouble supporting I/O needs in their default state, and it works with vendors to support VMs where possible, before falling back to dedicated servers. Lotus Notes and database applications are examples of where the I/O requirements make virtualization not an option.

Although it's easier to deploy servers in a virtual environment by using predefined images, "our staffing has stayed pretty much the same," Miggo says, because the same number of servers must still be monitored. The slight reduction in management overhead is offset by the need for VMware experts to manage the VMware environment, in addition to the server instances. And Nationwide learned the hard way that it needs to monitor both its virtual and physical servers, then correlate the two to identify potential trouble spots, Miggo says. Not doing so can make diagnosis hard, since a VM issue may be caused by a physical issue that a server monitor application running in only the VM won't detect.

There's also more overhead needed for Miggo's shared-services group to coordinate all users (such as developers and application managers) of a physical server, as changes to the physical server could affect them all -- and because adjustments to one VM's application mix could affect I/O and other physical server performance characteristics. "We now have to coordinate with 12 users," Miggo says. "People were used to having their own boxes and doing their own thing. Now they're more tightly controlled, which they don't like. But they have to follow control processes like code management and release management since what they do could affect others," he notes.

While many IT shops see virtualization as a question of adopting EMC's VMware on servers running Windows or Linux, Nationwide Insurance has adopted the technology for both x86-based and mainframe-hosted servers. After all, notes Buzz Woeckener, the company's zLinux/Unix servaer manager, virtualization was invented for mainframes.

On the x86 server side, Nationwide reached 5,000 servers two years ago, running all sorts of departmental applications, notes Scott Miggo, vice president of technology solutions. "We were growing at a steady pace, so we wanted to control the server space and the costs for new development," he says. "A lot of our servers had only a 10 percent utilization rate," he notes, wasting much of the server capacity. Roughly half are production application servers and half are test-and-development servers.

Today, there are 3,500 physical servers in operation but still 5,000 instances under management. The VMware servers typically host a dozen instances per physical server. "We assume every new server or application can be virtualized," Miggo says. He expects to have more than 1,000 virtual servers running on 89 physical servers by 2009. His team works to tweak I/O requirements or settings for virtual servers that may have trouble supporting I/O needs in their default state, and it works with vendors to support VMs where possible, before falling back to dedicated servers. Lotus Notes and database applications are examples of where the I/O requirements make virtualization not an option.

Although it's easier to deploy servers in a virtual environment by using predefined images, "our staffing has stayed pretty much the same," Miggo says, because the same number of servers must still be monitored. The slight reduction in management overhead is offset by the need for VMware experts to manage the VMware environment, in addition to the server instances. And Nationwide learned the hard way that it needs to monitor both its virtual and physical servers, then correlate the two to identify potential trouble spots, Miggo says. Not doing so can make diagnosis hard, since a VM issue may be caused by a physical issue that a server monitor application running in only the VM won't detect.

There's also more overhead needed for Miggo's shared-services group to coordinate all users (such as developers and application managers) of a physical server, as changes to the physical server could affect them all -- and because adjustments to one VM's application mix could affect I/O and other physical server performance characteristics. "We now have to coordinate with 12 users," Miggo says. "People were used to having their own boxes and doing their own thing. Now they're more tightly controlled, which they don't like. But they have to follow control processes like code management and release management since what they do could affect others," he notes.

The use of VMware’s VMotion software to load-balance and failover VMs across physical servers might reduce management, but the insurer is still exploring that technology. One barrier: Its requirement that all server instances run on physical servers with the same CPU family, requiring a consistent server pool to be in place.

Nationwide runs its Web servers in a zLinux environment on IBM zSeries mainframes, supporting 650 guest operating systems (VMs) today, with space for another 650 before additional hardware frames would be needed.

Often, using z/VM to support the virtualized Web servers requires a different strategy than using VMware to support virtualized Windows servers, Woeckener notes. For example, you might add memory, CPUs, or network cards to increase I/O on a VMware server. On a zSeries, the CPUs just handle executables, offloading physical I/O (such as network bandwidth and resource scheduling) to dedicated processors, so you don't need to worry about performance-sapping overhead incurred by server resource management.

Another difference: Increasing heap size can improve performance in a Windows application but also degrade it in a zLinux application, Woeckener says. That's because Linux steals resources wherever it can find them, so any extra heap space is used by Linux for its own purposes, degrading application performance. When the heap size is reduced, Linux seeks resources elsewhere, giving the full heap to the application and improving performance.

In both the VMware and z/VM environments, the ease of deploying new virtual servers has led Nationwide to align demand with real needs, as well as to encourage the use of VMs rather than physical servers. Virtual Windows servers cost a requestor $750 per month versus $2,000 per month for a physical server. And zLinux VMs add a per-MIP rate for weekday usage exceeding 15 MIPs. This overage charge steers batch processing to overnight and weekend periods, when overall demand is less, and forces developers of applications in use during the business day to optimize for performance, saving datacenter resources at the same time.

Virtualization special report

Case study: Credit Suisse

Case study: Purdue University

Case study: Stonebridge Bank

Case study: Transplace

 VMotion software to load-balance and failover VMs across physical servers might reduce management, but the insurer is still exploring that technology. One barrier: Its requirement that all server instances run on physical servers with the same CPU family, requiring a consistent server pool to be in place.

Nationwide runs its Web servers in a zLinux environment on IBM zSeries mainframes, supporting 650 guest operating systems (VMs) today, with space for another 650 before additional hardware frames would be needed.

Often, using z/VM to support the virtualized Web servers requires a different strategy than using VMware to support virtualized Windows servers, Woeckener notes. For example, you might add memory, CPUs, or network cards to increase I/O on a VMware server. On a zSeries, the CPUs just handle executables, offloading physical I/O (such as network bandwidth and resource scheduling) to dedicated processors, so you don't need to worry about performance-sapping overhead incurred by server resource management.

Another difference: Increasing heap size can improve performance in a Windows application but also degrade it in a zLinux application, Woeckener says. That's because Linux steals resources wherever it can find them, so any extra heap space is used by Linux for its own purposes, degrading application performance. When the heap size is reduced, Linux seeks resources elsewhere, giving the full heap to the application and improving performance.

In both the VMware and z/VM environments, the ease of deploying new virtual servers has led Nationwide to align demand with real needs, as well as to encourage the use of VMs rather than physical servers. Virtual Windows servers cost a requestor $750 per month versus $2,000 per month for a physical server. And zLinux VMs add a per-MIP rate for weekday usage exceeding 15 MIPs. This overage charge steers batch processing to overnight and weekend periods, when overall demand is less, and forces developers of applications in use during the business day to optimize for performance, saving datacenter resources at the same time.

Virtualization special report

Case study: Credit Suisse

Case study: Purdue University

Case study: Stonebridge Bank

Case study: Transplace

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