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Microsoft's virtualization software helped consolidate 159 servers used in assembly and component manufacturing down to 28.

Charles Babcock

June 22, 2009

4 Min Read

Over the course of a year, the engineers at Nissan's vehicle manufacturing plants in Smyrna and Decherd, Tenn., have implemented virtualization to consolidate 159 servers used in assembly and component manufacturing down to 28.

The consolidation is impressive, not only for its scale, but for the fact that it's been carried out by manufacturing and quality-assurance specialists outside the regular Nissan IT department. None of the servers involved was considered part of the business information services function, said Phil D'Antonio, department manager over conveyors and controls engineering in Nissan's Smyrna plant.

The consolidation was accomplished in some cases by combining what had been standalone but related manufacturing applications into one application, which was then run in one Microsoft Hyper-V virtual machine. That is, the server reduction reflects manufacturing applications being combined as well as stacking up virtual machines per server.

In Smyrna, Nissan is running an average of eight virtual machines per Dell R900 rack server; in Decherd, it's averaging six. Many pieces of the software infrastructure, such as the database, Active Directory, and Web servers, did not lend themselves to being virtualized and remain standalone applications, said D'Antonio.

The consolidation has led to a 34% savings in computer electricity consumption at the Smyrna plant, where preliminary measures have been made. "At Nissan, we're a [U.S. Department of Energy] Energy Star partner. It's very important to us to us to conserve energy and protect the environment," D'Antonio said.

In addition, what had been three computer rooms at each location has now been reduced to two. Two will be maintained, no matter how much consolidation occurs, so that a mishap that knocked out one computer room wouldn't shut down the plant. Each room can serve as a recovery facility for the other, for the servers at another plant. Virtualization makes that process simpler and easier to maintain, said D'Antonio.

The Hyper-V virtual machines are running manufacturing, quality-control, and process engineering applications, such as paint mixing for different models. The Smyrna plant produces Altima sedans, coupes, and hybrids; Frontier pickups; Maxima sedans; and Xterra and Pathfinder SUVs. The Decherd plant produces engines, crankshafts, and cylinder blocks. Nissan's standard virtualized server is a Dell R900 rack-mount model with 32 GB of memory, accessing 64 GB of SAN. To ward off I/O bottlenecks, Nissan equipped each server with two extra network interface cards, added to the four already in place. One port on the extra cards is used for redundant failover links to other servers, keeping the 4-Gbps cards with which the server came equipped free for moving network traffic. The servers also have redundant host bus adapters to handle Fibre Channel SAN traffic.

Matt Slipher, systems engineer for conveyers and controls engineering, said his department's applications cover such production-crucial issues as the delivery of parts to the assembly line and ensuring that the right parts are picked for the vehicle under construction. A manufacturing system specifies the parts, and as they are picked from bins in inventory, receives a confirming signal that the light beam over each bin was broken by the parts pickers at the correct location. A technician scans the part bar codes on the assembly line to make sure the right part is going into the right vehicle.

"If you pick the wrong part, the assembly line pauses," a career-limiting move for the parts picker, since many managers are watching for any cause in assembly line delays, Slipher noted.

Another virtualized quality application is the defect-checking system. If defects are found in a vehicle assembly, they are recorded and assembly line workers are responsible for correcting them "before the vehicle leaves your pitch," or zone, on the assembly line, Slipher said.

While Nissan is averaging eight virtual machines per server in Smyrna, they are together consuming an average 28% of CPU, 70% of memory, 3% of network bandwidth, and 1% of storage bandwidth, Slipher said. That leaves headroom for variations in application workload and, perhaps, more virtual machines.

Slipher said Nissan's priority isn't increasing the virtual machine count per server but bringing a similar level of virtualization to its Canton, Miss., assembly plant, where Quest minivans, Armada SUVs, and Titan pickups are produced, as well as Altimas. The Smyrna and Canton plants together have a capacity of 950,000 vehicles a year, he said.

Slipher said Nissan manages its Hyper-V virtual machines through Operations Manager, one of the four components of Microsoft's Systems Center. It uses Microsoft's Virtual Machine Manager, another Systems Center component, to provision its virtual machines. Nissan looked at competitors and chose Hyper-V over other virtualization alternatives through a strong existing relationship with Microsoft and confidence in the rapid maturity of its hypervisor, along with the savings that result from choosing Hyper-V. Hyper-V is now built into Windows Server 2008.

"This has been a phased-in approach, not the throwing of a light switch," said Slipher. "It's proven out to be the right choice."

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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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