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SAP virtualization becoming more prevalent, even with mission-critical apps

Thinking of getting started with SAP virtualization? Many SAP customers are jumping on the virtualization bandwagon.

When FutureFuel installed SAP ERP software two years ago, it decided to try something that was relatively new when...

it came to running enterprise applications -- virtualization.

FutureFuel, which manufactures biofuels and organic chemicals, took on the holy grail of virtualizing enterprise applications -- running its mission-critical SAP applications in a virtual environment using VMware. For the past two years, it has worked well, according to Lance Wehrung, senior engineer, systems, for the company.

"It's really run smooth. We haven't had any outages of this system due to anything [with] VMware," Wehrung said.

Two years later, FutureFuel's infrastructure is still uncommon, but it's a testament to the growing popularity of virtualizing enterprise applications. The majority of SAP customers are not running mission-critical SAP applications in a virtual environment, according to interviews with several analysts, but nearly 40% of more than 1,000 SAP customers surveyed are trying it in some form, according to statistics provided by VMware -- mainly in non-production environments like testing and development.

What's more, server virtualization will gain traction with SAP customers as more companies seek ways to cut costs in this troubled economy, according to several analysts. Virtualization is the most popular way for SAP customers to try and reduce operational costs on the technical side of the house, according to Derek Prior, research director at Boston-based AMR Research.

The best way to get started with virtualized SAP is in testing and development environments, Prior said.

Getting started with SAP virtualization

Planning is critical to getting started with virtualization, according to Christopher Carter, CEO and CTO of CCI, a Milwaukee-based SAP consulting firm that specializes in SAP virtualization.

"You don't want to go off into this just saying, 'Let's virtualize,' " Carter said. "You really have to plan out and decide which application you're going to utilize this for and what servers."

Companies should start out by taking a look at their system landscapes and understanding where the peak loads are for all SAP applications. It's a best practice that organizations should do at least annually. Companies need to conduct some form of hardware capacity planning driven by the business requirements, Prior said, in order to work out what the peak loads are likely to be for the next year.

Figure out which of the systems have a very low utilization level and target those for virtualization efforts, he said. The non-production systems are a very good place to start.

With the proper planning, virtualization shouldn't take too long, Carter said. In fact, CCI, which is an SAP customer, virtualized its 48 physical servers in less than a month.

Time and cost were the major drivers in FutureFuel's virtualization decision. The company launched its project because it needed an entirely new IT system after it was sold by Eastman Chemical in 2006, Wehrung said. Until that was in place, FutureFuel had to pay Eastman Chemical for computing services.

But with limited funds and an IT department of three people, FutureFuel couldn't afford to purchase and run the eight physical servers it would need to support SAP.

The time the company saved by setting up virtual machines instead of physical servers offset the cost of buying the VMware infrastructure, about $80,000, Wehrung said. FutureFuel is running four host servers and recently upgraded to VMware ESX 3.5.

SAP customers using virtualization in testing and development environments are realizing similar benefits. SAP customers using virtualization in upgrades have reduced the upgrade cycle from six months to four, and they're able to do twice as many test cycles before the project goes live, according to VMWare's Joachim Rahmfeld, who leads VMware's business development for SAP software in the Americas.

In turn, Carter said, he recently worked with a client that had 307 servers running SAP, and they reduced that load to 47. The company was able to move six people who were tasked with running those servers to more strategic processes.

Are you ready for virtualizing mission-critical applications?

Virtualization of mission-critical SAP applications is still in its early stages, but it is gaining momentum.

In the last six months, Carter said, he's started working with more and more companies that want to virtualize mission-critical applications. CCI itself virtualized 48 physical servers and is now running ECC 6.0, as well as SAP BI 7.0 installations in a virtualized environment, he said. It's using a combination of products from Citrix, Microsoft Hyper-V, VMware and Parallels.

Products from VMware and Citrix, which are by far the most popular choices for SAP virtualization, have vastly improved, Carter said. They have high availability, fault tolerance and instantaneous failover.

Wehrung thinks more companies should try running mission-critical applications in a virtual environment.

"I think it's just getting familiar with virtualization, what it's doing, and probably actually seeing it," Wehrung said. "It's kind of amazing when you migrate one physical server."

Prior said, however, that virtualization lacks the overall reliability and performance that systems users look for in their mainstream operating environments -- which can't afford one-hour outages.

"They don't want to take a risk with mission-critical production systems, and anything that would compromise that would be treated with skepticism," Prior said. "But it's inevitable within the next couple of years. [It's just a matter of] 'Do you want to go first?' "

Next Steps

Read this beginner's guide to virtualization

Read what virtualization means for SAP managed hosting

Dig Deeper on SAP trends, strategy and ERP market share

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