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New Vblocks target SAP virtualization, VDI

Bolstered by new Cisco UCS blades features Intel Xeon 5600 processors, the VCE Coalition is touting new Vblock configurations for SAP and VDI.

One year since joining forces as the VCE Coalition, VMware, Cisco and EMC this week announced a dizzying array of options for their Vblock reference architecture, giving IT managers a lot to think about as they plan their application and infrastructure buildouts.

The Vblock is a pre-configured, pre-tested infrastructure bundle that includes Cisco Unified Computing System (UCS) servers and networking, EMC storage, and VMware virtualization. Elements of the new Vblock reference architecture include new server models, and optimized configurations for virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) and SAP.

Vblocks can now include native Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE) storage arrays.

The latest Vblocks can be built from the full complement of Cisco UCS blades, not just the B200 that figured in earlier designs. For example, the four-processor full-width B440 server is a good fit for transaction-intensive environments, whereas memory-constrained workloads benefit from the B250, with its Extended Memory feature. The new blade options, in turn, lay the foundation for the VDI- and SAP-specific Vblocks.

Priming the SAP pump
SAP, for instance, uses a lot of memory -- one VMware whitepaper on virtualized SAP performance recommends 32 GB per physical host, and memory overcommit can cause the application to crash. The new UCS blades can scale from 96 GB to 384 GB of memory per blade; previous Vblocks couldn’t scale beyond 96 GB of memory per blade.

The new Vblocks are also capable of hardware-assisted virtualization using Intel’s Extended Page Tables, a feature of the Xeon 5600 series processors on the blades. Extended page tables, also known as nested page tables, can reduce the performance overhead of large virtualized database applications, including SAP.

As it stands, SAP users are at different stages of virtualizing the mission-critical app. “We have started down the path to virtualizing our development and test SAP environments, but I don't foresee doing so in the [next 12 to 18 months] for our production SAP environment, primarily because not all the players in our SAP environment officially support virtualization yet,” said Kevin Ubert, CIO of Burton Inc., a sporting goods company in Burlington, VT.

A Vblock optimized for SAP could speed that process for SAP shops. MySAP is known to be resource intensive and is also the life-blood for many organizations. For that reason, many IT pros have been loathe to virtualize MySAP (or any ERP application) but are also pressing SAP to reduce its hardware requirements. Virtualization is one way to do so.

“Something like [a Vblock tailored for ERP] would be huge for MySAP, with all of its infrastructure requirements,” said Quincy Faison, general manager with Vision33, a large SAP consultancy in Irvine, Calif.

Most technology barriers to virtualizing Tier 1 applications like SAP ERP have disappeared, but the remaining psychological hurdles are hard to overcome, said Todd Pavone, senior vice president of solutions for VCE. In his view, the risks to virtualization are nearly nonexistent but users continue to see a move of their complex applications and data streams into a virtualized world as scary.

Thus, a big chunk of the consortium’s job is to prove the absence of risk.

VCE, he said, has taken copies of production data from non-Vblock into Vblock environments and shown customers the resulting cost savings. It’s also run dozens of proofs of concepts to show MySAP running safely on Vblock technology.

For its part, SAP is engaged in an ERP death match with Oracle Corp. and is looking for all the friends it can get. Oracle is pushing users of its ERP and other applications to standardize on Oracle VM with negative support repercussions for those who continue to use VMware or Xen virtualization. SAP itself lacks the virtualization part of the software stack, so cozying up to industry leader VMware makes good sense.

VDI in View
Conventional wisdom has it that preconfigured bundles like the Vblock fit best into “greenfield” environments where they don’t have to be integrated into existing infrastructure. That makes Vblock a fit for many VMware View VDI environments, which tend to entail a massive infrastructure overhaul.

Jesse Pryor, systems administration manager for a financial institution, is investigating a pre-configured VDI bundle. “With times being economically tight right now, we are still using desktops that are five years or more old, which is now impacting productivity,” Pryor said. “With a … vBlock … I move my workstations to the data center where I can more directly manage the processing power granted to different groups based on business case.”

Architecturally speaking, VDI, like ERP, is memory intensive, said VCE Vblock architect Krishna Kattumadam. The new VDI-oriented Vblock leverages the extended memory capacity of the Cisco UCS B250 blades.

Availability of the new Vblock configurations is scheduled for this quarter. In addition, as the VCE parent companies announce new foundational products, the coalition expects to announce both smaller and larger Vblocks than are currently available, said VCE’s Pavone, as well as Vblocks focused on additional horizontal such as test/dev and vertical industries like healthcare, government and finance.

Who wants FCoE?
The new Vblock templates doubled as a backhanded announcement of the availability of native FCoE on EMC’s storage arrays. Such FCoE support had been expected this year.

The inclusion of FCoE storage in Vblock could boost FCoE adoption, which has thus far proved elusive.

“We don’t get a lot of calls saying ‘I need end-to-end FCoE!’” said Joe Skorupa, Gartner research vice president for networking and communications.

IT managers see the value of converged networks and FCoE from the server to the top-of-rack switch, but generally speaking, native FCoE all the way to the storage array is a case of “vendor push, not customer pull,” Skorupa said.

The technology is still extremely immature, storage buyers are notoriously conservative, and the value proposition in most cases is marginal at best, he said. Vendors, on the other hand, like to push early-stage technologies like FCoE because it increases lock-in. “It gives them much more leverage in the account,” he said.

But pushing FCoE down to the array does have its benefits, said Stuart Miniman, senior analyst at Wikibon, especially in the context of a self-contained Vblock. Today, FCoE storage traffic travels from the host to the FCoE switch to a Fibre Channel switch, and finally out to the Fibre Channel storage array. With native FCoE storage, the middle FC switching infrastructure becomes unnecessary.

“If you take a normal enterprise configuration [native FCoE] isn’t really that big of a deal. But if you look at a Vblock, it takes out an extra piece that you really didn’t need,” Miniman said.

Enterprise IT managers aren’t tripping over themselves to buy FCoE storage, but it’s on their radar screens.

The City of Mesa, Ariz., has FCoE on its Cisco UCS servers and is in the process of procuring new storage, and has considered FCoE for “the same reasons anyone else would want it: less cabling, simplified environment, less infrastructure equipment needed,” said Adam Baum, information technology architect in an email. “When we will go down that road is a different discussion,” he added. As they consider future storage purchases, Fibre Channel support is mandatory, “with additional protocol support given bonus points.”

But VCE Coalition architects say that FCoE storage is inevitable. “FCoE is a three-to-five-year play,” said Hari Kannan, technologist for field solutions with VCE. FCoE storage isn’t much of a fit today “in brownfield environments where there are a large number of [FC] cables already in place,” however, “greenfield environments are going with FCoE from ground zero,” he said.

-- Barbara Darrow contributed to this report.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Alex Barrett, News Director at, or follow @aebarrett on twitter.

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