When building the SAP infrastructure for Pelican Products Inc., Steve Hochheiser, global IT director for the Torrance, Calif.-based manufacturer of lighting systems and shipping containers, took an unconventional approach – unconventional, that is, for an SAP customer. He started building his SAP infrastructure from the hardware side, rather than the software side.
"SAP is a very good application, but they don't really delve deeply into the hardware front," Hochheiser said. When the time came to create the hardware environment that Pelican uses to run its quality and production SAP systems, he turned to Dell for help. The hardware infrastructure that Dell suggested combines Dell PowerEdge blade servers with EMC Clariion storage arrays. Pelican also uses the stalwart Fibre Channel (FC) rather than the newer iSCSI for its storage networking environment..
"We took a [shot] on the new blades, even though they weren't SAP-certified," Hochheiser said. But Pelican decided to take that leap into blade server technology because the company doesn't have a true data center. So even if the company had been able to afford purchasing 40 new servers for its SAP environment, there was another problem besides the budget. "There was nowhere to put those things," he said. "We moved to blades with the thought of virtualization and dealing with space [limitations]."
Complex SAP hardware landscapes
Hochheiser is hardly the first IT director who was forced to find a way to accommodate server sprawl in an SAP environment. "The complexity of SAP landscapes can sometimes boggle the mind," said Jeff Medaugh, worldwide marketing manager of HP's Business Critical Systems division, which is part of HP's Enterprise Storage and Servers Group.
"The trend this year seems to be server consolidation," Medaugh said. "A lot of people are reducing the number of data centers. They're just trying to reduce operating costs rather than tuning at the application level."
"[SAP] customers often find through experience that certain hardware is a better fit for their environment requirements," said Justin Burmeister, an independent NetWeaver and Basis consultant. For SAP customers seeking to improve SAP application performance, Burmeister has recommended TCP/IP accelerators, which enhance the performance of software running on high-latency networks; data deduplication to control the size of the database; and solid-state disks (SSDs) to improve I/O response time.
SSDs are a storage technology that has long been used in consumer products but first appeared in servers in 2008. In the newest generation of servers containing SSDs, there's been a "gargantuan leap" in performance, says Bharath Vasudevan, alliance and product manager at Dell.
A Dell spokesperson said that the company tends to recommend external storage-based SSD drives for business-critical applications, and that when it comes to SAP, SSDs are especially useful for search indexes of databases, the SAP TREX search engine in NetWeaver, SAP liveCache, an object-based version of the MaxDB database system, SAP customers using the tempdb database in Microsoft SQL Server, the SAP Roll Area, a memory area with a set (configurable) size that belongs to a work process, and specific areas of Business Warehouse Accelerator.
Wrong network hardware can bog down SAP systems
Network hardware components can also play a big role in SAP application performance. Switches and routers can bog down SAP systems if they're not wisely chosen or implemented, according to Chris Carter, CEO and CTO of HiLn Solutions, a Milwaukee-based consultant and SAP partner.
"Everything that touches the network is something the SAP environment is going to have to run data through," he said. "If it's not running efficiently, you're going to be in a boatload of trouble."
Many companies are virtualizing their SAP infrastructures, but there's no consensus on using virtualized servers with SAP applications. "Virtualization is definitely good for development and testing but not for production use in SAP," said Nasim Mansurov, vice president of information technology at Englewood, Colo.-based Stonebridge Companies, a hotel management company. He prefers that his company's SAP applications have dedicated time on physical -- rather than virtual -- servers. "We want to dedicate all system resources for our production servers, which is why we are not using virtualization in our production environment," said.
Pelican Products uses virtualization in its development environments and for Exchange, and, now that SAP is certified to run on VMware, the compamy plans to virtualize its production environment to reduce the number of servers running SAP from 40 to 30.
Hochheiser explains his deliberation in moving to virtualize his production environment this way: "If you're smart, you tend to be overly cautious with business applications," he said. "I think virtualization is a scary technology for many people at first." But because VMware now lets users see where individual virtual machines are residing, virtualization has become less daunting, he said.
"The only place [most customers] are hesitant to adopt virtualization is on the database layer," said Dell's Vasudevan. "SAP is running on the front-end layer that sits above the database, and those [SAP environments] are great candidates for virtualization."
Virtualization maximizes investments in hardware
But Burmeister reminds SAP users that "virtualization doesn't necessarily make SAP run faster. Rather, virtualization is a great way to maximize your hardware investment by putting CPUs and RAM into use where they are needed at a given point in time – e.g., month-end close processing."
While there are ways to run SAP faster by enhancing and reconfiguring existing hardware, a new SAP implementation usually requires buying new servers. When Stonebridge integrated its standalone financial, HR and payroll systems into one SAP ERP system, it only had to buy four new servers, two of which are currently being heavily used.
"With SAP, you have to look into buying new infrastructure, because SAP is a database-driven system," Mansurov said. "You have to make sure you have the right infrastructure, servers that are fast enough, storage that is big enough. [SAP] is resource-intensive."
When it comes to optimizing hardware to run SAP software better, consultant Carter has a rule of thumb. "For 99% of firms, it's the basics that really need to be looked at," he said. "Organizations won't even look outside of the box. They'll say, 'Let's bump up the power.' Yet you've got plenty of bandwidth. It's just people using the system in a bad manner."
Even though Pelican has plenty of bandwidth and is not experiencing any performance problems with its SAP applications, Hochheiser wants to keep ahead of the SAP performance curve by moving into cloud virtualization.
About the author: Christine Cignoli is a freelance writer based in Boston who specializes in writing about IT technology.You can contact her through her website.