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IT professionals taking a cautious approach to SAP virtualization

Virtualization dominates mainstream IT but is adopted more slowly in SAP environments due to concerns about disruptions to mission-critical systems.

Virtualization is the go-to deployment strategy for data center professionals, yet SAP specialists are taking a measured approach to evaluating and adopting the technology because of the complexity and mission-critical nature of SAP environments.

Investments in virtualization, along with collaboration and CRM technologies, are fueling the global software market, which grew 4.7% in the first half of the year to $167 billion, according to figures recently released by Framingham, Mass., IT research firm IDC. When chief information officers were asked to name their top three priorities for 2012 for an earlier IDC study, nearly 40% cited virtualization and server consolidation.

While server, storage and operating system virtualization are spreading widely, organizations are being more cautious about deploying core business applications like SAP in a virtual environment, said Allen Bannon, vice president of technology management for the SAP virtualization and cloud management program.

"If you look at SAP systems, they are systems of record, they are very complex and they are mission-critical," he explained. "SAP is a multiserver environment, which is more complicated. Customers tend to want to get experience virtualizing simpler applications before going after more complex applications with mission-critical workloads."

Virtualizing SAP: A tricky situation

But there are clear advantages for SAP shops that embrace virtualization. A big one is a reduction in IT infrastructure costs, since virtualization better utilizes server capacity. That reduces the need for overprovisioning to accommodate peak workloads. Virtualization also automates some of the time-consuming IT administration tasks needed to maintain an SAP environment. And it fosters business agility by enabling on-the-fly resource allocation to adapt to changing business requirements.

"By taking advantage of virtualization, companies are able to consolidate many servers and respond to business needs much more effectively," Bannon explained. "They can add resources to SAP systems on the days that they need to and take away from them when the capacity isn't being used. It enables companies to be more agile in terms of how they're running their businesses."

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Managing server capacity more effectively is a major advantage of virtualized infrastructures, but experts say it is harder to pull off in SAP environments. They are rarely dynamically managed the way Web application landscapes are because of a number of factors, including rigorous change control processes, the inherently large size of SAP systems and some pretty technical reconfiguration requirements, according to Chris Kernaghan, Senior NetWeaver Technical Architect at Capgemini, an IT outsourcing and consulting firm based in France.

The greener, the better

Some companies, like Cardinal Health Systems, a health care services company based in Dublin, Ohio, and Fonterra, a New Zealand dairy have fully virtualized their SAP environments. But experts say most companies attempting SAP virtualization are just testing the waters, virtualizing SAP test and development instances before tackling production SAP systems.

Tim Yates, CEO of DataXstream LLC, an SAP technology and consulting company in Williamsburg, Va., advises large SAP customers to move slowly toward virtualization and make a clear business case before leaping into it. Yet for new SAP installations, it's a different story.

"The one thing virtualization does when laying down a new landscape that a physical landscape does not allow is that you can rapidly adjust to the changing needs of the project as you get smarter about the implementation," he explained. "If you are laying down a greenfield, there is no [better] alternative than going to a virtualized landscape."

For existing SAP environments, companies should consider virtualization when they need to scale capacity to accommodate add-ons like Business Warehouse, Yates said. But the business case has to be solid, and there needs to be significant total cost of ownership savings to justify the transition.

"You're not going to go from an existing physical infrastructure to a virtual infrastructure simply for ease of flexibility of patching or reallocating hardware," Yates said. "There has to be some other driver to take you down that path."

The hosted approach

For Florida Crystals, which owns Domino Sugar, the move to virtualize its SAP environment came by way of a bigger, strategic decision to use hosted, managed services for infrastructure and data center operations, according to Don Whittington, the company's chief information officer.

While the transformation to the fully hosted and managed cloud system from Virtustream reduced infrastructure costs -- by 30% -- it also enabled the company's IT staff to focus on business requirements instead of the technology itself.

The Virtustream system manages all of Florida Crystals' SAP systems, so there is no need to maintain an SAP Basis staff or even a data center to host the environment, Whittington said. Plus, the new environment supports a 20% to 25% performance improvement and unprecedented infrastructure agility.

"Pretty impressive, and we get to focus on the business, not the technology," Whittington said.

'It's all about training'

Even after the business case is made, there are cultural and training issues associated with a change of this magnitude. Many existing SAP specialists and BASIS administrators with high-in-demand skills lack the experience and background in virtualization and are wary of the technology, according to Jon Reed, an independent SAP analyst who runs Putting a proper training plan in place and involving them in the virtualization roadmap is critical, Reed said.

Training and certification in new SAP offerings designed to facilitate the move to virtualization is also important, Reed said. SAP NetWeaver Landscape Virtualization Management, for example, is designed to help users manage and automate day-to-day administrative tasks across the SAP landscape in both physical and virtual environments.

"As with any application, there are things which are specific to that application and not others, and there are equally things about virtualization that require a different way of thinking," Capgemini's Kernaghan said. "In order to make sure these specifics are addressed and dealt with, you need to involve the right people, who can be difficult to find or are not entirely impartial."

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