Nationwide Insurance swaps servers for virtualized mainframes

By virtualizing hundreds of servers on a pair of IBM mainframes, a national insurance company saved millions of dollars and halted server sprawl.

When Buzz Woeckener joined Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co. in early 2005, the company was suffering from a serious

case of server sprawl.

The Columbus, Ohio-based insurance giant had more than 5,000 servers, and 78% of those servers were seeing a peak utilization of less than 50%.

"In 2005 we were looking in the next 12 to 18 months we were going to have to expand our tier-four data center," said Woeckener, manager of zLinux and Unix servers at Nationwide's shared services unit, Nationwide Services Co. "You know how expensive that can be to do an expansion."

Nationwide knew it had to optimize its servers. By swapping out thousands of servers for two virtualized mainframes running Linux, the company saved millions of dollars, halted server sprawl and encouraged innovation, Woeckener said recently at Gartner Inc.'s Annual Data Center Conference in Las Vegas.

The company told its developers all new custom-developed applications would run on servers provisioned virtually on two z9 mainframes from IBM. The mainframes, located separately in two main data centers, would run on Linux. Since mid-2005, the company has provisioned 286 virtual servers on the mainframes. One mainframe hosts 126 production servers. The other hosts 160 development and testing servers.

In particular, the mainframes are running 14 mission-critical applications, including the company's consumer-facing website, Nationwide.com, and an internal employee portal application that peaks at 22,000 users per hour.

The results have been better than expected. Woeckener said his company originally projected a $15 million savings in total cost of ownership over three years.

"We're ahead of that," he said.

Woeckener said the company has reduced its Web hosting costs by 50%, hardware and operating system support costs by 50% and data center floor space demands by 80%.

Back to the future

Companies that can no longer support one application per x86 server have been turning to virtualization to consolidate. It's a growth area for vendors like VMWare Inc., Microsoft and XenSource Inc., which decouple applications from machines, allowing one x86 box to run multiple applications.

But some companies are turning to the mainframe, the birthplace of virtualization, to consolidate their servers old school. The mainframe has a 40-year track record in virtualization. By their very nature, mainframes -- unlike x86 servers -- can run multiple operating systems at once, and with virtual machine (VM) operating systems, such as z/VM and the Linux mainframe engine, companies that are unafraid of leveraging mainframe technology can see some real benefits. They can run hundreds of virtual servers on a single box.

Michael Kahn, managing director of The Clipper Group Inc., a consulting firm in Wellesley, Mass., said IBM is capitalizing on virtualization with the Linux mainframe engine.

"Now there are so many commercial applications on Linux," he said. "It's not just a development environment anymore. This is a real growth area for the mainframe."

Kahn said antimainframe mythology is the only barrier to more companies using mainframes to virtualize. Mainframe myths include the belief that mainframes are more expensive, that there is a lack of skills on the market, and that the technology is harder to use. None of these is true, he says.

"One of the great myths is that the mainframe is more expensive," he said. "How much more expensive is it to maintain than all those underutilized, rack-mounted, Intel-based servers?"

Kahn said the notion that all mainframers are over 65 and ready to retire is false. He said schools all over the world are offering oversubscribed courses on mainframes.

Mainframe technology features a lot of automation, which makes it easy to use. The only difficulty is the mindset. Many see computer systems as a collection of individually owned PCs that communicate with each other. Mainframers, Kahn said, see the system as something to be shared.

Less stuff, more space

The mainframe approach is also driving innovation at Nationwide through faster provisioning of servers. Prior to this mainframe project, it took the company 30 to 60 days to provision a server, Wockener said.

"That's because you had to buy it. You had to get data center floor space. You had to get your cabling run in."

With the virtualized environment on the mainframes, that one or two-month time frame was reduced to two minutes.

"One of the things I think this environment allows you to do is technology-enabled innovation," Woeckener said. "Before, you would see [developers] come to you and say, 'I have this great idea I want to try.' And the first thing you would talk to them about is, 'What do you need?' And they would say, 'Well, I need 10 servers.' The next comment is, 'I don't have the budget for it. We'll have to order it. It will take weeks, and then it will take months to get the infrastructure up.'

You need to wrap your arms around your application teams and middleware teams and system administrators and tell them everything is going to be OK.

Buzz Woeckener, manager of zLinux and Unix servers, Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co.

"And then if you decide to do that, let's say the thing doesn't work. It's a great idea, but it didn't pan out. Now you've got 10 servers lying around that you don't know what to do with. You kind of stifle that innovative spirit even if you don't mean to. Well, here when someone needs 10 servers it's not a problem. Zap, in two minutes here are 10 servers. And if [the idea] doesn't work out, in another two minutes they're gone."

Woeckener said acceptance of this approach wasn't automatic.

"Some of the biggest problems you're going to run into are going to be cultural," he said. "You need to wrap your arms around your application teams and middleware teams and SAs [system administrators], and tell them everything is going to be OK. They'll be looking at you and say this virtualization stuff just doesn't make sense 'Where's my server box? What do you mean I have an IP address?' Well, if your data center is anything like ours, most of our application people have never even touched a box in a data center anyway. 'How do you know we haven't been doing virtualization the last 10 years and just finally decided to talk to you about it?' To them, it [the server] looks exactly the same. Just because you can't see something does not mean it doesn't exist."

One chief architect at a U.S. insurance company, who asked for anonymity, described Nationwide's story as "inspiring."

The chief architect said his own company is considering a similar approach, by consolidating 100 servers on a z890 mainframe with Linux. He said his company initially declined to make the move because it believed the cost of buying additional memory for the mainframe was too high.

But after listening to Woeckener's talk at the Gartner event, the chief architect said he is convinced his company can save money by virtualizing on the mainframe.

"We'll look at it again," he said.

Let us know what you think about the story; email editor@searchcio.com.

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