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Virtualization's Next Stage

Pfizer is implementing the next generation of virtualization, which extends the technology's benefits from hardware to middleware

Virtualization came into the data center as a force for server consolidation. Now the next generation of virtualization technology is reaching beyond that into middleware, treating application servers as a virtual resource that can be marshaled to meet a variety of applications' needs and service-level agreements.

Early server consolidation consisted of creating virtual machines that partitioned servers into defined amounts of memory and CPU shares, with each partition running its own operating system and application. Because the boundaries of the partition were strictly defined, one piece of hardware could run multiple virtual machines safely, so server utilization rates went up and the number of servers companies needed to buy and manage went down.

Virtual servers save real dollars, Pfizer's Lynn says.

Photo by Sacha Lecca
Now experienced virtualization implementers, such as pharmaceutical company Pfizer, want to bring similar benefits to more of the IT stack. Pfizer's core business unit, Pfizer Global Pharmaceuticals, plans to virtualize more of the company's middleware, particularly its BEA Systems' WebLogic application servers, and use them as a flexible, dynamically allocatable resource.

Virtualization market leader VMware says its customers are already generating virtual machines that include the application server as well as operating system and application combinations. One of the benefits of doing so is the ability to rapidly generate more instances of an application server/application combination as demand for the application's services spike. But such combinations are not as flexible as treating the application server alone as a virtualized resource, as Pfizer wishes to do, says IT researcher Jonathan Eunice, at research and consulting firm Illuminata. A handful of new vendors are emerging with the capability of treating middleware as a resource in its own right rather than tying it to specific applications.

"We're very early in the process of virtualizing middleware," Eunice says. Vendor examples of the capability include Levanta's Release 3 software for IBM's zSeries and Intrepid M appliance for Linux on x86 servers, Cassatt's Collage and Web Automation Module, and IBM's WebSphere Extended Deployment.

One Machine, Many Servers

Pfizer aims to make 14 WebLogic application servers (running on 14 hardware servers in the data center) into a single virtualized resource by the end of this month using Cassatt's Collage grid management software and the vendor's recently unveiled Web Automation Module. Under the module's virtualization capabilities, Pfizer business apps will not necessarily run with the application server on the same piece of physical hardware where the application is located. Apps encountering the most demand will get application server services from wherever they are underutilized across the server set.

Running Cassatt's Collage and Web Automation Module "will allow us to manage our WebLogic environment as if it were one machine," even though it's spread across multiple servers, says Richard Lynn, VP of global applications and architecture. That way, Pfizer can shift WebLogic resources from one set of applications to another or remotely fire up more WebLogic servers to handle additional traffic, when needed.

If the first phase works as expected, Pfizer will bring another 86 servers under Cassatt software management by the end of the year. Pfizer also uses VMware virtualization software, and by the end of 2007, 500 servers will be utilized in a virtual mode, using either Cassatt or VMware's technology.

Pfizer will extend virtualization beyond its core business applications running under WebLogic to include portal servers and portal apps. In addition, the 500 servers will run Oracle database and application software; IBM DataStage data extraction, transformation, and loading software for Pfizer's data warehouse; Microsoft Windows Server applications; and WebLogic's Java apps, Lynn says.

The benefit of managing a grid of servers and the middleware they support using virtualization now seems obvious to Lynn. "We would need at least double the 500 servers if we weren't running Collage and VMware," he says.

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