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Server virtualization: Bilcare's hidden business plan aid

Jasmine Desai, Principal Correspondent
Bilcare Research is an innovation-led solutions provider, which partners with the global pharmaceutical and healthcare industry to improve patient healthcare outcomes. Bilcare has a global footprint with modern manufacturing plants and R&D units located across the U.S., Europe, India and Singapore. IT infrastructure provides a solid backbone for Bilcare's global operations and business models. With new business plans in its pipeline, Bilcare realized the need to invest in technology that corresponds with its business plans. That's when

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server virtualization entered the picture.
Arora's tips for server virtualization

1.If there's a heterogeneous landscape of hardware and applications, take care of the heterogeneity at the planning stage of server virtualization.

2.Work closely with the vendor so that there's no disruption later. For the long-term, always club server virtualization with upcoming business opportunities, so that you get more headroom for optimization.

3. Look for vendors who are seriously committed, and have lots of transparency.

Server virtualization learning curve

Bilcare's business needs started spiking during the first quarter of 2009. It planned to launch new offerings in the Indian market over the coming quarters. It had worked on a virtual server platform before—with IBM iSeries hardware—but had not done any server virtualization deployments on its Dell blade chassis based Intel platforms.

According to Manoj Arora, the global CIO of Bilcare, the IT team knew there was always room for optimization through server virtualization. Traditionally, more blades were being deployed for new applications. However, this was not the model that Bilcare had in mind when it first invested in servers. Rather, the company had envisioned a model where it got more server utilization. To this end, server virtualization was the only answer.

At that point of time, Bilcare had to choose between Hyper-V, VMware and RHEL (Redhat Enterprise Linux) 5.3 server virtualization solutions. Hyper-V was in its initial days, and VMware was already an established player, when Bilcare evaluated these server virtualization solutions along with RHEL 5.3. Bilcare ran pilot projects with these three solutions to determine utilized server capacity. Total cost of ownership (right up to change management) was calculated during this phase. However, the team realized that something was amiss with Hyper-V and VMware server virtualization solutions as far as the organization's requirements were concerned.

There were multiple reasons for Bilcare to zero in on RHEL 5.3. "The technology roadmap coming from this server virtualization solution, and its potential impact on our business—both short-term and long-term—made us decide on RHEL 5.3." says Arora.  (The team was also considering data center hosting companies, wherein they could hire virtual machines to host their applications.)

Bilcare's planning cycle was longer than the execution cycle, so it knew that the server virtualization rollout's execution would be right on the dot. These challenges came in, since Bilcare used SANs from two different companies, Dell and IBM. Integration of these SANs to accommodate the server virtualization infrastructure became an unexpected challenge, but one which the team managed to successfully tide over.

All the physical servers in Bilcare are grouped in the following categories: infrastructure servers, DMZ servers and SAP servers. These 1U, 2U and blade servers are from IBM as well as Dell.

Bilcare's IT team decided to first virtualize the physical servers of its infrastructure and DMZ categories. In all, there were around 20 servers to be virtualized in the first phase. These included Microsoft Exchange, Active Directory Services, file servers, Web servers, SQL servers and other specialized application servers. All these servers were running on Windows 2003 R2. As of now, 80% of the servers at Bilcare's Pune data center have been virtualized. The implementation was done by Redhat's gold partner Tashee Services. The planning took four months, whereas the implementation was completed over six months.

Summing up the server virtualization experience, Arora comments, "The journey is still on, though most of it is over. I can never ever say that I have no more servers to virtualize." Bilcare has segregated its virtual servers in two categories, and a high availability landscape is available for each category. These servers have been sized in a manner capable enough to take more growth and load. Bilcare did not spend more than $40,000 (approximately Rs 18,00,000 at the time of writing) for hardware and software services, and even this was done keeping new projects in mind. If new projects had not been considered, Bilcare would have finished the server virtualization project in less than $22,024 (approximately Rs 10,00,000).

Several benefits of server virtualization in terms of space savings and power savings are obvious. "Cost savings are incidental," notes Arora. "Companies do not grow by saving on costs—they only become a little more efficient. We grow by investing and growing in the market. The best part is generating more bandwidth for users." Bilcare's IT team got trained without the addition of more resources. Thus, the IT team members were the owners, right from the planning stage. Also, there was no need to alter security measures. Future plans include implementation of virtual desktop infrastructure for standardization purposes from an end-user perspective.