When clients or potential clients come to Deloitte Consulting1 seeking guidance on which SAP system or configuration will more effectively suit their business needs, instead of talking with consultants hypothetically or discussing abstract solutions, they experience a virtual showroom of preconfigured solutions.
Deloitte’s Solutions Network (SNET) group can walk clients through a variety of different SAP systems right from the Deloitte office. A business in the food and beverage industry can demo an SAP solution tailored to its specific needs. For an aerospace and defense company, there’s another industry-specific SAP solution available to show. In fact, SNET has over 300 SAP instances running at once.
This strategy helps Deloitte’s customers envision what their SAP environments could look like from the very first meeting. It can also help reduce the time and cost to configure and maintain these SAP landscapes during their entire life cycle. And it’s all possible through the power of virtualization.
Making the Virtual Move
The SNET group is a technology center of knowledge comprised of more than 90 technical application and infrastructure specialists that help Deloitte Consulting sell and deliver projects and packaged applications. The group’s SAP team has 27 members and is divided into three functions: client delivery, R&D, and operations.
The SNET group had been interested in the concept of virtualization since it was first introduced, and these team members gradually gained experience by virtualizing their non-critical systems first. Based on feedback to increase delivery speed, reduce costs, and be more flexible, SNET set a goal to virtualize 80% of its SAP environment in 2010. At the same time, this group also planned to host other systems on similar virtual servers to expand the business’s internal investment in virtualization.
SNET maintained control over the virtual SAP systems so the team could make adjustments and investigate performance issues on its own. “SAP leading practices are very different from other applications, and a technical architecture group doesn’t normally have the time or knowledge to learn leading practices for running SAP systems on virtual servers,” says Scott Wall, R&D Manager for the SNET’s SAP group. “In order to monitor our SAP environments as closely as possible, we decided to host them on a dedicated VMware virtual server cluster. That way, if we experience disruptions or performance issues, we know they are created by the SAP environments and not other applications or events that another group has introduced to the virtual environment.”
Rather than provide SNET team members with direct access to virtual servers, the group developed a dashboard that pulls key information from the virtual environment and provides visibility into the server cluster via a simple web page. “Through this dashboard, we can monitor our systems capacity and access reports that are typically only available to VMware administrators. Our capacity management dashboard ties directly into VMware’s vCenter and helps us understand how much vCPU, memory, and SAN are available at any given time. This visibility allows us to plan earlier for infrastructure expansion and avoid project delays caused by lack of system resources,” says Wall.
Monitoring the environment uncovered some useful trends. For example, SNET noticed that during certain periods, performance of its virtualized SAP environments would inexplicably decline. Upon inspection, it realized those performance drops coincided with the periods when Deloitte would run an upgrade or perform system maintenance, which are operations that take longer on virtual systems than they do on physical servers.
“We discovered through testing exercises that system performance is significantly improved when we scale up the number of virtual CPUs during those types of operations,” says Wall. “We only need that extra horsepower during certain events, and we typically scale it back down when the operation is over.”
That exercise demonstrated to SNET the value of monitoring and controlling its own virtual SAP landscape. The group began to negotiate with the central IT organization to gain additional access to virtual servers. SNET’s SAP team was provided the requested level of access, which includes access to performance data and the ability to ramp up and ramp down virtual CPU resources when required, without logging a ticket or calling in another organization. “The ability to view performance data in vCenter allows our SNET SAP team to troubleshoot more effectively and uncover performance trends over time,” says Wall.
“By extending our SAP exposure to virtualization to over 95%, we lowered infrastructure costs and reduced our carbon footprint. The outcome is a more efficient mechanism to deploy, monitor, and manage internal systems.”
— Scott Wall, SAP R&D Manager, Deloitte Solutions Network
Gaining Virtual Proficiency
With more control over its virtualized SAP systems, SNET needed to educate its staff about virtualization leading practices. This meant training SNET’s SAP technical specialists on non-SAP technology (VMware) that affects how the SAP environments perform.
Along with other VMware specialists, Wall co-presented a deep-dive session on virtualization for his team and arranged for his team members to attend formal training. SNET team members also met directly with VMware representatives to discuss SAP leading practices, and together they performed various tests to establish internal benchmarks and leading practices. By the end of the process, most of the SNET SAP team knew how to manage and troubleshoot virtual SAP environments.
“Now that our team has learned more about virtualization, we can make educated recommendations and, most importantly, understand what’s happening when we see performance degradation,” says Wall. While the group can now ramp up the number of virtual CPUs when needed, changes to actual parameters that control the VMware environment still go through the central system architecture group.
Deloitte’s client base directly benefits from the virtualization experience the SNET group has gained. When a client requires an upgrade or patch to its virtual SAP system, SNET can ramp up the number of virtual CPUs to cut the processing time down from 35 hours to 5 hours for certain processes.
Today, SNET’s SAP systems are 95% virtual, and the remaining systems on physical servers are current projects that will be ending soon. Instead of virtualizing the last 5% of systems for a short time, Wall says that it makes more sense to conclude those projects on the existing physical equipment.
Tiering the Virtual Landscape
Not all companies are confident enough in the technology to virtualize their production SAP environments. According to Wall, those companies should at least consider virtualizing their non-production environments to gain some benefits. The way to do that, he says, is through a tiered strategy. SNET’s strategy involved breaking up its SAP systems into two tiers: those that are billable to clients and get top priority, and those that SNET uses internally for its sandbox and testing environments. Tier 1 systems have a larger capacity buffer in their resource pool that aligns with the company’s pipeline and establishes requisite computing power to serve customers. Less critical (Tier 2) systems share virtual CPU power and have a smaller capacity buffer in their resource pool.
“We know we can typically service a certain amount of client systems at any given time without impact from growth of non-critical systems on the same virtual cluster,” explains Wall. “We can adjust the number of Tier 1 systems dynamically as our workload and pipelines change over time.”
Some companies, however, may still prefer to share resources across tiers, so it comes down to the business case. “It works for us because we have to make sure we have adequate capacity and good performance for the client systems,” he says. “We reserve the memory for those systems, which is a recommendation from SAP.”
Gaining Virtual Benefits
SNET’s work in virtualizing its SAP systems has produced a number of real benefits both internally and externally. “By extending our SAP exposure to virtualization to over 95%, we’ve lowered our infrastructure costs and reduced our carbon footprint,” Wall says. “The outcome is a more efficient mechanism to deploy, monitor, and manage internal systems. And for our customers, we can accelerate system delivery at potentially lower costs while providing more flexible options for different types of requests.” For example, SNET’s SAP team members can provision certain types of servers themselves by leveraging VMware templates. This strategy can dramatically cut down provisioning time compared to traditional methods that require software installation, patching, and other post-installation steps.
On the customer-facing side, SNET’s consultants can also clone a virtualized testing environment very efficiently, which is helpful in proving the value proposition to potential customers. Imagine a customer who wants to heavily customize or load data into an SAP solution to accommodate a specific proof of concept. “We don’t want to do that in our own primary landscapes because we want to keep those solution environments fairly generic,” says Wall. “In the virtualized environment, we can make a copy of the entire solution, use it for a specific purpose, and then decommission the temporary system(s) when the project is over.”
Going forward, SNET plans to further streamline its virtualization processes and roll out an alert capability to notify staff when specific capacity or performance levels are reached. SNET also plans to implement SAP’s Landscape Virtualization Management software to further enhance the monitoring, cloning, and provisioning of SAP systems.
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