Medical Device Firm Virtualizes E-Mail For High Availability

NuVasive turned to VMware to virtualize one of its most important applications: Microsoft Exchange Server.

Charles Babcock, Editor at Large, Cloud

March 10, 2009

4 Min Read

In its fourth year as a public company, NuVasive, a supplier of devices for minimal-invasion spinal surgery, pulled in revenue of $250 million last year, up 62% from the year before.

In order to sustain this rapid growth while keeping expenses in hand, it turned to VMware to virtualize one of its most important applications, Microsoft Exchange Server. Bill Moore, IT infrastructure manager, opted to put his Microsoft Exchange Servers into four VMs after running it in the startup years on a single physical server.

In order to achieve built in failover and recovery, he split the four VMs across two dedicated Hewlett-Packard blade servers in his San Diego data center, each with four CPUs and 32 GB of memory. They're governed by VMware's High Availability product to manage failovers.

With the upcoming implementation of VMware Site Recovery Manager, he will get full off-site backup and recovery by adding two servers at his disaster-recovery site in Memphis. To get all that redundancy the old way, he would have had to buy four four-way servers for each location, he said.

"We've just implemented Site Recovery Manager. It goes live at the end of the month," said Moore, giving him the second level of redundancy that he's always wanted for his Exchange Server users.

Exchange isn't everybody's first choice as an application to virtualize. Exchange users depend on access to e-mail and tend to become vocal when they don't have instant access. In many shops, there's a tendency to regard Exchange as not only deserving its own physical server but also as a standalone, not-to-be-meddled-with object.

NuVasive changed all that when it migrated from Exchange Server 2003 to Exchange Server 2007 at the beginning of 2008. Moore now runs VMware High Availability as part of his Virtual Infrastructure 3 environment in San Diego, and with only two VMs per physical server, he has stayed within VMware's recommended best practice of using less than 50% of a High Availability server.

That guarantees constant machine capacity if one server has to take on the workload of both. He figures he can even add a third VM in the future to each blade without hitting the 50% mark. In the 2007 version, Exchange became less monolithic than its 2003 predecessor, with Microsoft subdividing it into a front-end mail-notice processor and a back-end message distributor.

Moore has split up end users so half are resident on each physical server, and each virtual machine that does the front end processing has an edge in machine resource priority. That speeds up new mail notifications to end users, although Moore hasn't been able to quantify precisely by how much. He notes there have been no outages under the new arrangement and "none, no end-user complaints" after 15 months of operation.

"The company is growing by 50% to 60% a year. The number of end users increased by 100 (to a total of 500) last year," said Moore, with the volume of mail per user increasing as the company matures. Depending on the economy, another 100 may be added in 2009.

Moore said his company moved to virtualized Exchange after running an experiment in which it virtualized its BlackBerry messaging server and managed 100 mailboxes through that VM. "That was so successful we made the test server our [BlackBerry] production server," said Moore.

His company also implemented a Compellent Technologies storage area network, which automatically handles Exchange Server data replication to the disaster-recovery servers in Memphis.

NuVasive has proceeded to virtualize what many consider mission-critical applications, including its new SAP supply chain software and its Oracle and SQL Server databases. Moore estimates that 95% of the data center is now virtualized and that deployments of new servers take an hour instead of several days to a week. Without the management tools that accompany VMware's vCenter management console, he would have had to add an additional person to his small IT staff. With the management tools, "we've been able to change the way we do things," he said.

Microsoft now supports Exchange in a VM in the same manner as Exchange on a standalone physical server, Gaetan Castelein, VMware senior product marketing manager, said in an interview.

That didn't used to be the case. In the early days of virtualization, Microsoft technical support personnel would protest that if Exchange was running in a VM, it needed to be run on a nonvirtualized server and the same problem created there in order to receive technical support, he said. That changed last September, when Microsoft announced it would no longer discriminate between the two.

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About the Author(s)

Charles Babcock

Editor at Large, Cloud

Charles Babcock is an editor-at-large for InformationWeek and author of Management Strategies for the Cloud Revolution, a McGraw-Hill book. He is the former editor-in-chief of Digital News, former software editor of Computerworld and former technology editor of Interactive Week. He is a graduate of Syracuse University where he obtained a bachelor's degree in journalism. He joined the publication in 2003.

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