Business expansion has been on the agenda for Austrian wood products maker EGGER the past few years. The longtime SAP customer has grown enough to open new plants in Turkey, Russia, and Romania, and has seen its employee base grow to more than 6,500. From an IT perspective, that level of growth means more IT (and SAP) users putting more requests and demands on its applications and databases. To help meet that demand in the most efficient way, EGGER chose to develop a new data center. After discussing the most important requirements, the business decided this new center must be:
• In a different location from the organization’s headquarters for risk management purposes
• More flexible and efficient from both a business and an environmental standpoint
Given this scope, EGGER’s IT organization decided it was also the right time to undertake an initiative that would virtualize the application servers across its SAP landscape — with a goal of reducing hardware and maintenance costs and gaining energy efficiency and business flexibility within the new data center.
Eighteen months later, EGGER was live on a virtualized landscape that has achieved this goal and received positive reviews from both end users in the business units and the top management. The successful project provides a suitable model for other companies investigating the benefits of virtualization.
The Case for Flexibility
EGGER has been an SAP customer since 1996 when it first installed SAP ERP. Today, the company runs almost exclusively on SAP solutions, including SAP NetWeaver Business Warehouse (SAP NetWeaver BW), SAP ERP Human Capital Management (SAP ERP HCM), and SAP Customer Relationship Management (SAP CRM). At peak times, more than 2,000 concurrent users are active on its SAP ERP system, and as many as 700 concurrent users are on the SAP NetWeaver BW system at any given time. To ensure it could handle the load appropriately, EGGER dedicated multiple physical servers in its data center to these SAP applications.
“Gradually, we noticed all of our six-year-old servers — except the big database servers — were underutilized,” says Matthias Haidekker, Data Center Manager at EGGER. “We had far too much capacity for the SAP application servers and decided we wanted to better utilize the hardware.”
EGGER’s IT team understood that virtualizing the underused application servers would provide more flexibility and lower hardware and maintenance costs. The team had experience virtualizing desktops across the company with Citrix XenApp, which provided the confidence to make the jump to virtualized application servers.
Then, in 2006, the IT organization received financial approval from the board at EGGER to move to a new data center in five years. In 2010, the IT team began investigating its virtualization options. For six months, IT leaders reviewed the various options on the market that could meet its needs — and by early 2011, had narrowed the choices down to three front-runners. The decision-making process was also accompanied by an external consulting partner.
For the next six months, EGGER ran a proof of concept with each of those solutions and tried to be as extensive as possible without delaying the project’s timetable. “We knew the more extensive our testing was at this stage, the smoother our implementation and go-live would be later,” says Haidekker.
After completing those projects, IT presented the results to the top management — who supported the virtualization project and accepted the recommended solution.
The selected package was the Cisco Unified Computing Systems (UCS) platform, with NetApp and VMware technology on top of it. Today, that package is marketed as FlexPod, a prevalidated data center solution built on a flexible, shared infrastructure. Because EGGER was one of the first companies to use this configuration — and the advantage of customer experience wasn’t available yet — the business was, in essence, blazing the trail for future FlexPod users.
“When FlexPod was released as a package, it confirmed that our decision to use these solutions together was the right one,” says Haidekker. “This architecture best met the demands we set for ourselves prior to starting the project — the main goals being to have a fully virtualized server/network/storage environment, as well as to shift from a classical fibre channel storage access network (SAN) to IP based-storage access.” (For a more technical look at the Cisco UCS platform, see the sidebar to the right.)
Benefits for Users and IT
After a month of user training and some fine-tuning, EGGER went live with its virtualized SAP environment on FlexPod in October 2011. And almost immediately, the end-user benefits were clear to IT as well as the SAP users across the enterprise.
First and foremost, virtualizing application servers has improved the end-user experience on those SAP applications. EGGER’s tests included timing certain SAP transactions in the virtualized and non-virtualized environments. And the virtualized version was significantly faster.
“We set up the whole landscape to be as standard as possible to make the management of the systems as easy as possible — so if operators know one system, they know all of them,” says Haidekker. “With a better performance by our servers and network, and faster data access, we have fewer user issues.”
Behind the scenes, because the server load can be shared and adjusted, applications that get more use or have the highest peak users can be given more power when they need it, which means end users see improved performance. During the proof-of-concept phase, EGGER also ran tests in SAP Load Generator (SGEN) to confirm the improvements prior to go-live.
“Now we can deploy new servers much faster because a new server is only a few clicks away,” says Oliver Widhoelzl, Expert Data Center Operations Team Leader at EGGER. “We can move or migrate servers online without interruption to another host. And if we need more performance for any system, we just add memory or more CPUs.”
Of course, the reduction of physical servers makes the new data center more energy-efficient and cost-effective, immediately and in the long term. “Our investment in the data center today is lower than it was five years ago thanks to fewer servers and less maintenance required,” Widhoelzl says.
And while positive user feedback is always helpful, in some cases, a lack of negative feedback can be just as useful.
“We have seen performance improvements from an IT perspective even if we don’t always hear about these improvements from end users,” says Haidekker. “It’s a case of no news is good news.”
Evaluate, Evaluate, Evaluate
Haidekker says much of the success of EGGER’s virtualization project comes from the evaluation and testing work the IT organization performed before selecting and implementing FlexPod. That included a full six-month market review to determine what solutions were available to meet their needs before the three separate proofs of concept.
“We are confident that the platform we have set up can now accommodate the expected growth in our user base — without us having to make any major changes,” says Haidekker. “But you can be sure that, in three years, we plan to look at it again and reevaluate.”