Facing Exploding Server Growth, One IT Shop Turns To Virtual Servers

When UNUM Corporation and Provident Companies merged in 1999, they created the U.S.’s largest disability insurer. They also created some major IT headaches.

The two companies were themselves both the products of recent mergers. That left the new UnumProvident Corporation, which is headquartered in Chattanooga, Tenn. and employs some 13,000 people, with “more legacy systems than I care to think about,” says Randy Robinson, the firm’s vice president of information technology.

One of those legacy systems ran on OS/2. Porting it to Microsoft Windows was not an easy task, according to Robinson, and one that had to be put on the back burner while UnumProvident’s IT department dealt with more pressing projects, like dealing with Y2K.

That left 1,100 workers with two computers on their desks, one running OS/2, and one running Windows.

Earlier this year, facing a scheduled refresh of those PCs, UnumProvident reluctantly began planning to buy 2,200 new computers. “It was going to cost us a fortune,” says Robinson.

Instead of the double PC purchase, however, UnumProvident turned to an emulation program called Virtual PC, from software vendor Connectix Corp., of San Mateo, Calif., which is best known for software that lets Macintosh users run Windows applications on their Apple computers. Virtual PC lets users run multiple PC-based operating systems and applications on a single Windows workstation.

That let UnumProvident run the OS/2 applications on Microsoft Windows XP PCs. The employees got one new computer each, and the company, according to Robinson, saved $2.3 million a year.

Server farm growth: 50% a year

Now UnumProvident is hoping it can repeat its success with emulation software on the desktop to help control the growth of its server farm. The company is currently evaluating an enterprise-grade version of Connectix’ Virtual PC, called Virtual Server, as well as similar virtual server software from VMware, of Palo Alto, Calif.

Virtual Server, which entered beta testing earlier this month, runs on Intel-based servers containing up to 32 processors, and supports the Windows.NET Server 2003 and Windows 2000 Server families, as well as Linux, UNIX, NetWare, OS/2 and DOS. According to Connectix, Virtual Server allows users to create up to 64 concurrent virtual machines on one server.

Like many companies, UnumProvident has been experiencing huge growth in the number of servers it has to manage. Between the mergers and the explosion in the number of Web-based applications the company is running, “our server farm has been growing at about 50% a year,” says Robinson. “We’d like to get that under control.”

UnumProvident has hundreds of print servers, according to Robinson, and more than 50 domain name servers. In addition, the number of servers used by the company’s 450 programmers for application development can multiply rapidly, because the developers need to test programs on multiple operating systems and multiple versions of each operating system.

“Like most Microsoft shops” says Robinson, “we’re have Windows NT 4, we have Windows 2000, we have some .Net server, and pretty much everything in between.”

“When one team puts a product into production,” he says, “and they need to support different environments, typically the solution has been to just put in a new server for each variation. That becomes a very expensive proposition.”

UnumProvident is looking to the virtualization software to let it replace multiple test and multiple development environments with one larger box running multiple virtual servers, says Robinson.

“By deploying virtual technology on a very limited basis, just in our development and testing environment,” he says, “we think that we can save well in excess of six figures a year.”