Qualcomm reaches for the clouds

2008 InfoWorld 100 finalist: Virtualization positions mobile juggernaut for next-gen cloud architecture

Many companies have implemented virtualization to reduce their physical server infrastructure, free up precious datacenter space, reduce power requirements, and make server management more flexible, but few adopted virtualization as early -- or pushed the technology as far -- as Qualcomm.

Back in 2003, when Qualcomm's IT group had filled the company's datacenter to capacity and still needed to grow, it turned to VMware to consolidate their Windows environment. It wasn't looking for cost savings necessarily, but the group knew it could show management big results -- and get the nimbler, next-generation datacenter the company needed.

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"We just said, 'Hey, give us $250,000 in seed money, and we'll give you back $1 million in a year,'" Matthew Clark, director of IT, remembers. "Four years later, I think we've saved more than $25 million."

These are what Clark calls "hard" savings: savings from not having to build new datacenters, as well as significantly reducing purchases of new server hardware, network cards, HBAs, and so on.

Today, the benefits of server virtualization stretch across a dozen Qualcomm datacenters. Server virtualization is the catalyst for automating server provisioning, deprovisioning, and other administrative tasks, and it drives down the cost of scaling while ensuring high availability. Three out of four Windows servers are now virtualized; doing so has enabled Qualcomm to scale up its Windows operations without increasing its hardware footprint over the past five years, Clark says.

With the virtualization of the Windows environment under the group's belt, Clark and team have moved on to Linux, Solaris, and end-user desktops. Desktop virtualization at Qualcomm is taking many forms, from VDI (virtual desktop infrastructure) and thin clients to application virtualization and streaming.

The goal, Clark says, is "thin mobile computing," where nothing is stored on the client. "That way," he explains, "if the laptop is ever stolen, we don't care. There's no proprietary data on there."

Brian Baker, Qualcomm's VP of IT Infrastructure, is eyeing the possibilities a little further down the road.

"We really want to move the desktop piece towards managing employee profiles versus managing their devices," Baker says. "As that technology moves forward, we're taking advantage of it as fast as we can."

The idea, of course, is to deliver the applications and data from the cloud so that the user experience isn't tied to a specific device.

For Baker and Clark, virtualization is key to moving Qualcomm's datacenters to a "next-generation, on-premises cloud architecture." It allows them to stretch the capabilities of a smaller hardware footprint, to be more efficient operationally, to scale applications more quickly to meet demand, and to make necessary changes to the environment on the fly. In short, it's providing the necessary ingredients for Qualcomm to deliver more advanced and scalable cloud services to customers around the globe.

"Now that we have SLAs that are tied to external customers, it's a whole different ball game for us," Baker notes. "When we host these things, the ability to scale in the same footprint with minimal disruption is critical. It's mostly about streamlining delivery, and stretching performance and scalability, and leveraging our operational efficiencies." Currently, Qualcomm's sysadmin-to-server ratio is 520 to 1.

Ultimately, the Qualcomm "Qloud" will be about flexibly distributing hardware resources to on-demand services, as well as being able to manage the loads depending on business needs. Clark says the next step is creating software that can provision an application very easily and push it across different operating systems throughout the datacenter -- and depending on the load, even across datacenters worldwide. In other words, to do the same thing for applications that server virtualization has done for operating systems.

"Now we're looking two to three years ahead," Clark says. "We're really pushing forward to be ahead of the industry to where we think it's going to be, so that we're there before them."

And if it saves Qualcomm a few million dollars, that wouldn't be a bad thing, either.

2008 InfoWorld 100 Award winners

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