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Companies pumped for switch to ERP virtualization

A growing number of companies are exploring ERP virtualization to reduce costs, increase agility and find resiliency.

As companies get more comfortable with virtualization technologies, experts say that an increasing number are turning to ERP virtualization with the hopes of improving resiliency, bolstering agility and improving overall IT infrastructure costs.

Storage virtualization, server virtualization and OS virtualization have become staples of the data center, yet companies have been slower to virtualize core business applications like ERP, in part because they are very complex and because as the system of record, they are central to day-to-day operations.

Their reluctance is starting to ebb, however, as virtualization takes hold in the data center and becomes the core platform for other enterprise systems. According to Symantec Corp.'s 2011 Virtualization and Evolution to the Cloud Survey, of the companies implementing virtualization, more than half -- 59% -- plan to virtualize database applications, 55% plan to virtualize Web applications, 47% plan to virtualize email and calendar applications and 41% plan to virtualize ERP.

Experts believe that virtualization is finally gaining traction in ERP environments because CIOs and CFOs recognize it helps reduce IT infrastructure costs by eliminating the need to over provision in anticipation of peak workloads. They also see benefits to virtualizing ERP to enable IT to better respond to business.

"[ERP] virtualization is the ultimate tool for providing choices and allowing IT to make good decisions," said Ken Klika, director, network solutions at BCG Systems Inc., a system integrator focused on network infrastructure and ERP. "Today, if you build out a private cloud with virtualization, you can at some point in time move your ERP to another platform because it's portable."

Sanjay Ejantkar, senior manager, product marketing at Epicor Software Corp., said that the company is definitely seeing its customers evolve the use of virtualization, initially from the ERP development environment, to the user testing environment and, more recently, for production ERP.

"Three or four years ago, companies weren't comfortable having another layer of complexity put into their ERP environment. They were afraid of it and some were prone to keeping production environments as nonvirtualized as possible," Ejantkar explained. "That's changed." He added that cloud infrastructure adoption and the fact that younger IT professionals are moving up in the ranks has increased overall familiarity with virtualization as a key enabling technology.

ERP virtualization finds new uses

While ERP virtualization initially has been leveraged to replicate environments more quickly, Ejantkar said the use case is changing. Specifically, he sees more companies deploying virtualized ERP as a more efficient way of dealing with peak workloads and as a way to boost resiliency and optimize service-level agreements (SLAs).

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"We're seeing a shift where virtualization, previously thought of as an easy way to replicate an environment, is becoming more central to disaster recovery and SLA scenarios," he said.

Wadsworth, Ohio-based Cornwell Quality Tools is one of those customers. The company recently upgraded to Microsoft Dynamics for ERP and virtualized in the process, according to Mickey Charlton, IT director. "The virtualized environment seemed to be a win-win all the way around," he explained, "from the standpoint that we're not hardware dependent and it's easier to manage."

The virtualized ERP infrastructure -- in Cornwell's case, currently five servers out of a company total of 55 -- also makes it far easier to scale to additional capacity when necessary. The added benefit: a better way to protect against downtime scenarios. "Previously, we had SQL Server running on one server and one day it went down and we had six hours with no ERP," Charlton said. "With virtualization, we can copy things over to a different system on the fly and avoid a downtime situation."

Specialized know-how

While ERP virtualization is now well within reach of companies like Cornwell, there are some challenges and current limitations. Just like any IT environment, there is a high level of care and feeding associated with virtualized systems and IT needs to stay on top of maintenance to avoid degrading performance, Klika said.

Virtualizing an ERP database also requires some specialized expertise, including working with a more sophisticated disk-based storage system, allocating transactions and logs, and planning for data growth, he explained.

Understanding how to standardize and specify hardware resources is another common challenge, according to Brett Beaubouef, a 20-year ERP practitioner. For example, defining the IT infrastructure and creating hardware profiles that denote a resource as high capacity or high availability is all part of setting the stage for ERP virtualization. "Standardization and governance are part of the exercise of virtualizing," he said. "Once you come up with those standards, virtualization becomes a whole lot easier."

Having the right partner is another factor critical to the project's success, said Scott Bonnette, vice president of finance at Portage Precision Polymers, a Ravenna, Ohio-based rubber mixing facility, which is working with BCG on its ERP upgrade and virtualization effort.

"We had some challenges with consultants that weren't as familiar with ERP in a virtualized environment so there was little bit of a learning curve and some coordination had to take place with them and our main consultant, BCG," he explained. "You have to make sure you're working with a partner that knows what they are doing."

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