When FutureFuel Corp. began separating its IT systems from its former parent company almost three years ago, it had carte blanche to build its own IT infrastructure however it saw fit.
That's when the manufacturer of biofuels and specialty chemicals decided it was time to fully virtualize its enterprise SAP applications, running SAP virtual servers to take advantage of the well-publicized benefits of virtualization: reduced hardware costs, less maintenance and lower data center electricity bills.
Previously, parent company Eastman Chemicals had provided WAN links to remote servers, but once it sold off FutureFuel, the company had to build its own data center.
According to Lance Wehrung, a senior systems engineer at FutureFuel's Batesville, Ark., manufacturing facility, the decision to virtualize its SAP environment and run SAP virtual servers was a wise one.
"We decided that the best move would be to virtualize our SAP applications over traditional physical servers to have easier maintenance and lower initial costs compared to buying more hardware," he said. "We still had a substantial cost for the hardware for the host machines, but not nearly as high as the costs to run [a higher number of] physical servers."
FutureFuel has been running virtualized SAP applications for its 250 licensed SAP users since then. (The IT department supports 250 other users who don't access the SAP software.) To do this, FutureFuel employs four physical host VMware servers that run virtual workstations, servers and SAP servers. In addition, 34 virtual servers run across the four physical host VMware servers. Of these 34 virtual servers, eight make up FutureFuel's SAP infrastructure.
Substanial savings from virtualization
Wehrung doesn't have hard numbers for the savings he has seen from virtualization, but he's confident that they are substantial enough to justify moving more applications over to virtual servers.
Because FutureFuel's manufacturing facility began with a clean IT slate, it enjoyed an easy install. Wehrung said the only obstacle he faced in running SAP virtual servers was that SAP had not yet officially blessed running its applications on virtual servers. However, the SAP announcement of support for virtualized environments came shortly thereafter.
Still, that lack of support from the applications vendor did not present much of a problem. "We didn't think we were taking a huge risk," Wehrung said. Not only had the company already done some testing of virtual environments, it also had experience with a trial version of VMware that had worked out well. "It showed us the main core technology could run the core SAP components and servers," he said.
"You are installing the VMware applications on top of the server and you have to get that part configured and set up before you can start doing the 'normal' things that the server administrators are used to doing with the SAP software. You have to pave the road, so to speak, in order to drive your SAP servers on it."
Wehrung said he also realized that software performance might take a small hit when running SAP virtual servers. "But [with] the low amount of transactions that we do," he said, "I doubted our users would notice anything."
Less time spent managing servers
In any case, the benefits FutureFuel saw from virtualization far outweighed any drawbacks. One benefit Wehrung sees every day in running the data center is time saved in server management.
"When you are monitoring servers in the virtual world, you don't have to physically go out to them and check them. It saves a lot of time," he said, particularly when it comes to FutureFuel's remote sites. Wehrung can simply monitor all of FutureFuel's servers – those in Batesville as well as those at remote sites -- from his desk.
According to Gary Chen, research manager for enterprise virtualization software for IDC, the benefits that FutureFuel has experienced in moving to virtualization are common among other companies as well. "Virtualization, if done right, provides a better experience than bare metal servers," he said. "You're getting quicker and easier availability from extracting the software from the hardware."
Another benefit of virtualizing servers is that users are no longer linked to physical servers that can break down. When virtual machines are created that can be moved to other virtual servers at the first notice of impending operating problems, companies don't need to keep costly spare equipment on hand, he said.
"Typically, if your software is tied to the hardware, you have to keep such a [backup] machine handy, which isn't that practical unless you have money to burn," Chen said. "You can even say with a Tier 1 application like SAP, you may not want to do a lot of virtualization, but it can allow you to be more flexible [in the event of a server failure]."
"With virtualization, you can do a live migration [of the failed server instance] since it's constantly running," Chen said. "You can move it back and no one notices [that it was ever down]."
About the author: Todd R. Weiss is a veteran technology journalist and freelance writer. He worked as a staff reporter for Computerworld.com from 2000 to 2008. Follow him at Twitter.com/TechManTalking.