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U.S. Navy enlists virtualization to supercharge sprawling intranet

The Navy-Marine Corps Intranet (NMCI) is the largest purpose-built network in the world. It runs on 40 server farms and is used by more than 707,000 sailors, marines, and civilians in 620 locations in the United States and Japan. Thus, the task of virtualizing the NMCI's underlying server infrastructure -- without disrupting service -- has proven to be an enormous technological challenge. Yet the rewards have been significant, reaping the Navy and Marine Corps better network performance and reliability, significant financial savings, and a reduced impact on the environment.

The task of virtualizing NMCI's network fell to Hewlett-Packard's EDS subsidiary, which has managed the system for the Navy since 2001. EDS has thus far consolidated 2,000 of the Navy's 4,500 x86 servers down to 300, each hosting multiple EMC VMware ESX virtual machines. The servers are Dell PowerEdge R900 blades, designed to host multiple VMs. They boast 32GB of memory, six network connections, and six host bus adapters for storage traffic.

The environmental benefits of the project came as a pleasant surprise to Greg Burke, director of network operations center services for NMCI. "After the first wave of the project, we realized just how significant the environmental impact of virtualization was," he says. "Not only were we reducing our footprint by purchasing fewer pieces of equipment for hardware refresh -- resulting in less hardware waste -- but we were also using significantly less power and cooling energy for the server farms."

When the project is complete, it is expected to achieve a 9-to-1 consolidation of servers, saving the military an estimated $1.6 million per year in power and cooling costs, a reduction of more than 65 percent. Moreover, the organization will avoid spending $1 million on new machines when it comes time to refresh its gear. Additionally, the Navy expects to save 40 to 70 percent of its server farm floor space. From an environmental standpoint, the virtualization project has reduced the Navy's carbon emissions by 6,800 tons, the equivalent of taking 2,550 cars off the road, and the Navy expects that number will reach 7,466 tons of CO2 by the time the project is complete.

In addition to servers, the project has focused on virtualizing applications, such as printing, Microsoft Exchange, anti-virus software, and other customer-facing apps.

NMCI uses Distributed Resource Schedule (DRS) to monitor server utilization and optimize application resources. Additionally, if a server fails, the VMs are quickly moved to another server. According to the Navy, this project boosted efficiency and reduced downtime by 50 percent, thus boosting user satisfaction.

Previously, the network leveraged Windows clustering to move app services from one copy of the OS to another. Now, using Vizioncore's vRanger, the network boots new VMs out of storage, a more efficient approach.

Driving a virtualization project of this magnitude is a challenging endeavor, notes Burke. "We did extensive planning -- working with VMware -- before we undertook the effort as to what applications and servers made the most sense to virtualize," he said. "But even with extensive planning, testing and strategizing, there are still things that you cannot anticipate, especially considering the size and scope of NMCI."

The most challenging aspect of going virtual: Ensuring there are adequate resources, including a healthy back-end storage environment, to satisfy the high demand of Navy applications.

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