For most organizations, the business case for virtualizing their SAP environment is simple and straightforward: to reduce infrastructure costs and to run SAP applications faster and more efficiently.
However, determining whether a company's existing hardware infrastructure can support a virtualized SAP environment is not so simple.
What is the first step in virtualizing an SAP environment? Does a company first analyze its server hardware, inspect its critical SAP applications or take a good look at its SAP virtualization strategy?
Discussions with SAP users who have already virtualized their SAP environments suggest that it's like juggling: You need to start by doing all three tasks simultaneously.
FutureFuel Chemical Corp., a Clayton, Mo.-based manufacturer of biofuels and performance chemicals, virtualized its SAP environment in April 2007. Lance Wehrung, a senior systems engineer for FutureFuel, recommends that SAP administrators first determine whether their existing hardware and the available memory are sufficient or whether they need to bring in new, more powerful servers.
"In our experience, the amount of RAM in a server is more important than the performance of the CPU," Wehrung said. While both are important, he said, "We find applications like SAP to be more memory-intensive than CPU-intensive. In addition, the more virtual servers you run on a physical server, the more you have to consider I/O as well."
I/O, he said, will be one of the three areas that an SAP administrator will have to optimize as an SAP virtualization project continues, the other two being RAM and CPUs.
Wehrung suggests that companies start small when consolidating servers by virtualizing an SAP environment. "A company can deploy VMware software on any of its servers that meet the recommended VMware guidelines," he said. "It doesn't have to be the company's most powerful servers. In fact, I would recommend companies start consolidating less critical servers until they get comfortable with virtualization."
Nor are leading-edge servers, such as quad-core servers, mandatory. "SAP is a demanding application," even when it's virtualized, Wehrung said. "However, you can tune each virtual server to better maximize the resources of the [existing] server hardware."
The bottom line, according to Wehrung, is that virtualizing an SAP environment "always starts with the software. Then you put the hardware in place to make the software perform as it should."
SAP virtualization meant starting from scratch
IT services hosting provider T-Systems North America replaced its servers instead of upgrading them in order to get the performance it desired from virtualizing its SAP environment, according to Gregory O. Smith, vice president of technical deal solution management for the company.
T-Systems, the business customer unit of Deutsche Telekom in Germany, is one of the largest SAP global partners, managing IT services and delivering applications for about 1.3 million SAP users. When SAP began its drive four years ago to prepare its software to run in virtualized SAP environments, T-Systems had to start from scratch.
T-Systems needed to deliver SAP infrastructure to customers using a virtualized infrastructure that could quickly react to increased or decreased demands for services. "This required us to take a greenfield approach so that we could properly design this completely virtualized, integrated, shared environment in a way that allowed us to do automated provisioning, workflow, operations, etc.," Smith said. "We had to design everything new from a hardware perspective."
That build-from-scratch approach is not for everybody.
"It depends," Smith said. "It gets back to the strategic goals of the company and its IT systems. The older the hardware is, the more restrictions you have." The memory capacity of a company's servers is a key factor; if the servers can accept more RAM, the company can probably keep them in place for now.
However, the high cost of adding memory capacity could make it more cost-effective for a company to replace its older servers with newer, more efficient models. "We make that assessment all the time," Smith said. "Where do I want to be in two or three years in a virtualization rollout strategy? You have to look at depreciation, timelines, SAP upgrades, whether you might be adding CRM. Then look at your roadmap. Then you have to ask what kind of virtualization you want -- to just drive up utilization? To automate? To reduce staff? To be able to provision new gear and new SAP instances in 48 hours? Different [companies] have different requirements."
SAP virtualization required quad-core servers
A large manufacturing company based in the Midwest is taking a similar approach to virtualizinge its SAP environment. The company was running mainframe-based, mySAP applications for supply chain management, materials management, purchasing and maintenance -- applications that were heavily customized. But moving to virtualized application servers required new versions of the software, and that meant the company had to bring in new hardware as well.
The manufacturer chose to go with new x86-based servers, each running four Intel quad-core CPUs, with up to 100 GB of shared memory. The project uses virtualization software from VMware Inc. and will take up to 18 months for testing before going into production.
Was it easier to start from scratch instead of having to reuse existing servers? "Not necessarily … because we had to go out and procure all the hardware," said the manufacturing company's IT manager. "That's a bunch of work you don't have to do if you have the hardware already."
Christopher Carter, CEO of HiLn Solutions, an SAP ERP consultancy in Milwaukee, said the hardware needs are generally the same for a virtualized SAP deployment, no matter what kind of business is tackling it. "You need to look at what virtualization will be best, whether it's VMware, Microsoft's Hyper-V or something else," he said. "Each has a different footprint, with different needs. You want to match those up as much as possible to the organization. One answer does not fit all."
Determining the right virtualization provider begins by looking at the existing hardware, the operating systems, the databases and everything else from hardware to software, then looking at the virtualized SAP applications you want to bring in, Carter said. "You then start to build out a plan and a blueprint," he said. "You have to look at everything at once to plan and deploy it."
The move to a virtualized SAP environment should not be intimidating, according to Gary Chen, research manager for IDC's Enterprise Virtualized Software. SAP, he notes, has been reworking its applications over the past few years so they can be more easily run on virtual servers.
User surveys conducted by IDC show that about two-thirds of the SAP virtualization projects being done involve new hardware, while the rest are accomplished using existing servers, Chen said. "Tier 1 [applications] have been the least virtualized so far, but companies like SAP are starting to rally support for virtualization."
About the author: Todd R. Weiss is a freelance technology journalist. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/TechManTalking.