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Virtualization to cloud: Planning, executing a private cloud migration

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Columbia Sportswear's move from virtualization to private cloud computing

Columbia Sportswear parlayed server virtualization into a private cloud. Along the way, it found that its management tools needed serious rethinking.

LAS VEGAS -- Companies that have only begun to virtualize may not have cloud computing on their priority list, but IT shops that use virtualization as a path to private cloud find it to be an effective way to serve their business needs.

Two years ago, building a private cloud was hardly the first IT priority for Mike Leeper, Columbia Sportswear's director of global technology. But as his team stepped up its server virtualization levels, the project gave way to a cloud migration.

In 2009, Portland, Ore.-based Columbia Sportswear, an outdoor apparel company, was somewhat of a laggard in virtualization, let alone in building a cloud. It was focused on creating its first disaster recovery (DR) strategy and was only about 18% to 20% virtualized, according to Leeper.

"We started evaluating the basic concepts of virtualization and realized that was how we were going to do what we needed to do -- and do it repetitively over time," Leeper said during the session, Lessons Learned on the Road from Server Virtualization to Private Cloud, at Interop last week.

The company has come a long way since then. Strategic choices along the way -- both technology and personnel related -- helped speed the transition from virtualization to public cloud computing.

The ERP tipping point

In less than a year, Columbia Sportswear progressed from a 20% virtualized environment to one that was more than 90% virtualized.

"We virtualized everything -- from test and dev and sandboxy things to big-boy, tier-one applications," Leeper said.

Still, the environment was hardly a private cloud. There were no management tools layered on top to provide automation, nor was there standardization, a self-service catalog for users or a chargeback system.

The tipping point came with the purchase of a SAP enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, which Columbia historically ran on IBM Power hardware. With only three retirement-age staffers with iSeries knowledge, Leeper needed to modernize hardware.

With that, Columbia bought a VCE Vblock converged infrastructure to run the new ERP system and to provide a path to a true private cloud environment, he said.

IBM Power hardware wasn't the only casualty; many of the company's infrastructure management tools were dumped on the road to the private cloud.

"We kept trying to use our legacy tools to manage virtualized workloads, but those tools just don't work," Leeper said. "You start looking at performance metrics from physical-layer hardware, and virtualized workloads are spoofing the heck out of that."

Other than Microsoft Operations Manager for Windows and applications, all management tools have been replaced with virtualization-based tools, such as VMware vCenter Operations, vCloud Director and third-party reporting tools.

Roadblocks to the cloud

As is often the case with cloud projects, people, not technology, are roadblocks to success. Developers who had specific performance requirements were hesitant to work with virtualized applications. They were also concerned about licensing restrictions, where companies like Oracle Corp. have stringent rules about support for virtualized apps on hypervisors. Leeper had to prove out the case for a private cloud with these naysayers, incrementally.

"To convince them, we gave them every resource they asked for to get up and running, with the notion that we were going to show them exactly what they were consuming," he said.

By taking an incremental approach and creating buy-in over time, Leeper got key stakeholders enthused about the cloud.

There was also opposition to service catalogs. Users wanted the kind of customization they had enjoyed under the pre-cloud regime, but Leeper made it clear there was a new sheriff in town.

"Everyone wanted their own configuration of what their platform looked like: 'this kind of compute, this kind of memory, this kind of storage layout.' We put a stop to that," he said. "We have eight profiles you can use; that's it."

Columbia Sportswear has continued to virtualize and build its cloud environment, and it has overhauled its hardware and management to get there.

Ultimately, the purpose of the project is to enable the business goals of the company.

"When a designer comes up with a new product, we have an infrastructure that can rapidly deploy at scale and allow the business to operate as fast as they want," Leeper said. "The heavy lifting of the work we have done in the past 18 months is what has gotten us to that point."

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Essential Guide

Virtualization to cloud: Planning, executing a private cloud migration
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