Corporate Express reaps rewards of virtualisation

The business-supply giant has saved £867,000 and ditched over 90 percent of its server hardware thanks to server virtualisation
Written by Angus Kidman on

Server virtualisation has saved business-supply giant Corporate Express AU$1.8m (£867,000) and allowed it to ditch more than 90 percent of its existing server hardware.

However, achieving those benefits required a major shift in the company's storage infrastructure and business engagement with data classification, a process which technology infrastructure manager Mark Jones described as "challenging".

"We dipped our toe early on into VMware and found that could help us out, but our storage infrastructure didn't suit our virtualisation requirements," Jones said at the Gartner Infrastructure, Operations & Data Centre Summit in Sydney.

Corporate Express's existing storage area network (SAN) was struggling to cope even before the virtualisation strategy was developed around 2006. "We were hitting all sorts of performance problems with that," Jones said.

A long-term plan to relocate into new corporate headquarters also meant that IT had been asked to continue operating in its existing data-centre space, making virtualisation the most rational option. "We had a goal of virtualising 80 percent of our servers."

Jones was also keen to develop a more effective storage architecture and backup system. "We really didn't have any classification around storage; it was mostly direct access. We wanted to pair up storage with the criticality of the business applications and implement a scalable SAN storage model."

Backup and disaster recovery were particularly problematic. "We had a disaster-recovery capability, but it was only covering one system and it took us two days to recover that system. I had my two best engineers spending four hours a day just to administrate the backup system, which was just crazy," Jones said. "It was a high-cost solution for the number of servers we had. The maintenance bill alone was just ridiculous."

Despite the potential benefits, a major issue was getting business management to agree on which applications should be given priority for storage and backup. "That was challenging, because the business doesn't really care. It's a very entrepreneurial business and a lot of people just see these sort of things as roadblocks."

Getting agreement was eventually aided by a number of external factors, including pressure from overseas shareholders to achieve Sarbanes-Oxley Act compliance and a strike in Victoria, Australia, which focused management attention on the need for better disaster-recovery systems.

The four-tier model Corporate Express developed saw a handful of business-critical applications — eight of the company's 180 — attached to high-availability tier-one storage. Subsequent tiers were used for common, but not critical, applications, archiving and backup.

Corporate Express was keen to pursue a single supplier relationship and eventually chose EMC. "We were very much looking to point the blame at one vendor if we could if things went wrong," Jones said. Symmetrix was used for the first tier, Clariion for the remaining applications, Centera for archiving and Avamar for long-term backup.

Despite the single-supplier goal, archiving to Centera was handled by Symantec's Enterprise Vault rather than EMC's own solution. "We thought that was a little bit superior to the EMC products," Jones said.

Server reduction
The most visible benefit of the switch has been in a dramatic reduction of servers operated by the company. From running 200 separate x86 servers, Corporate Express has moved to just 16 IBM 3650 boxes, collectively running 270 virtual server instances. Unix systems have also been virtualised on two p570s and one p550, running 55 virtual servers.

Cost savings have also been impressive. "We saved AU$1.8m, so there's a substantial cost reduction," Jones said. Power required for the datacentre dropped from 100kVA to 20kVA, enabling the centre to remain at its existing location until the move to the new corporate headquarters, which was completed over the Anzac Day long weekend.

Another 10 x86 instances are scheduled to be added this week. Staff have begun competing to see how quickly servers can be provisioned, Jones said, with an in-house record of 12 minutes. "The business is absolutely ecstatic in terms of how we can provision servers," Jones added, although he noted that "virtual server sprawl" may eventually become a problem.

Overall storage has dropped from 92TB (terabytes) to 44TB. "We're much better at managing storage than we were before," Jones said. "Backup is one of our biggest success stories. We've reduced our backup from six hours a night down to 30 minutes."

Future plans include developing an integrated archiving solution for SAP, which Corporate Express is introducing as its company-wide ERP system, and revisiting the question of which applications should be classified as business-critical. "The business now is looking to classify more systems as T1, so there's some challenges that we have to deal with there."


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