It was just after the Marine Corps left to help those devastated by the 2005 tsunami in Southeast Asia that Maj. Carl Brodhun first heard about virtualization.
While trying to support some 10,000 Marines—along with other workers from the United Nations—who were called to help with the relief efforts, Brodhun and his team were faced with a problem. They needed to run nine different critical communication applications on only three physical platforms. A young sergeant suggested to Brodhun that they virtualize the physical systems and run the applications from those virtual environments.
The suggestion paid off, and within 36 hours the applications were up and running.
"Marines in the field are faced with technical challenges and they have found ways to make it go," said Brodhun, who serves as the team leader for virtualization at the Marine Corps System Command, in Quantico, Va. "In this case, Marines in the field had too many applications and not enough platforms."
Just as virtualization, the ability to partition a single piece of physical hardware into multiple virtual machines, is changing the way enterprises look at the data center, the technology may also change the way the military approaches its worldwide network of data center sites.
Now, the Marine Corps is looking to use virtualization in new ways that could offer a blueprint for enterprises that are ready to move beyond data center consolidation and moving applications off older hardware.
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"The military, or the Marine Corps in this case, represent the ultimate global work force," said Pund-IT Research analyst Charles King, who frequently writes about the impact of virtualization in enterprises. "In the last couple of years, the global work force had become much more mobile and much more removed from the home office. The question now becomes, How do you support these employees in these remote offices? The challenge is also not only supporting these employees with robust IT solutions, but how can it be done financially and how do you make sure that those remote locations are secure?"
While the USMC announced in October that it had entered into a long-term contract with VMware—currently the market share leader in the x86 virtualization space—the goal of the Marine Corps is more than mere server consolidation, although part of the plan does call for the consolidation of some 300 data centers worldwide to 30 stationary sites and 100 mobile sites. The use of the technology will help transform its IT infrastructure.
A Marine spokesperson did not return calls seeking comment on the exact dollar amount of the VMware contract.
"All the common themes are seen in both government and private enterprises, like constraints on budgets, the needs to meet constant changing demands, and the limited resources needed to manage and maintain IT environments," Aileen Black, vice president of VMware's Public Sector division, said in an e-mail to eWEEK. "Use cases like consolidation are the same, but taken to the extreme. By taking the functionality of what an IT department can deliver in garrison [at home base] and consolidating it and allowing it to be put in a suitcase that can be quickly and easily deployed in the desert, [virtualization] changes the game."
The USMC's interest in virtualization is part of a much larger program called the MCEITS (Marine Corps Enterprise IT Services), an ongoing initiative that looks to better manage and control the service's sprawling IT infrastructure both in the United States and overseas.
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"The Marines, as well as other parts of the DOD [Department of Defense], experience the kinds of problems that any global conglomerate might experience in terms of IT and how to get IT to scale across a global enterprise," Brodhun told eWEEK. "The difference being we have to pick a significant portion of our IT infrastructure up and move it around quite frequently."
While server consolidation is part of the MCEITS initiative, Brodhun said there are other areas that are more important to "increasing the scalability, security and continuity of our mission-critical applications that are supporting our war fighters in the field."
Page 2: A Few(er) Good Data Centers
There are three distinct areas that Brodhun and his staff at System Command are exploring regarding virtualization.
The first is the use of virtualization—specifically, VMware's Infrastructure suite that includes the ESX hypervisor—to support greater application density within the data center and to provide high availability and better security. This should help the USMC reduce the number of global data centers.
The second project is to create what Brodhun calls virtual appliances that can be used by Marines both in combat and within the data center. The goal is to create secure containers that encapsulate the operating system—the Marines use both Linux and Microsoft Windows—and applications, which will allow a Marine to provision or reprovision a piece of hardware. This should reduce the calls to the USMC IT help desk and allow Marines in the field to recover an application on a piece of hardware that has been damaged or lost.
The third project is to use virtualization to create hosted desktop environments involving a number of different uses of the technology, from thin clients that use network-delivered applications to standard PCs, where the desktop image is carried on a USB drive or other device.
King said bringing virtualization to the client side of the equation involves some of the most innovative use of the technology, which will help the Marines deal with the turnover in their ranks.
"Their force is constantly changing and with that, the relative expertise of each Marine changes with it," King said. "It's a good investment to look at a thin-client setup, where the applications can be easily provisioned and managed from a centralized data center."
These changes to the Marine Corps' IT infrastructure will not happen overnight. Right now, Brodhun and his team are working to finish the first phase, which is scheduled to be completed by 2009. The deployment of the virtual appliances will occur between 2008 and 2010, and the switch on the client side will happen between 2009 and 2011.
For the staff at System Command, the speed at which the different virtualization strategies are deployed is not as important as the long-term impact for those Marines stationed in far-flung areas such as Iraq and Afghanistan.
"It's about the ability to ensure that applications are always on, they are operating in inheritably secure environment and then we have reduced the level of effort to the greatest degree possible for our Marines in the field to recover from planned, unplanned or catastrophic outages," Brodhun said. "This is absolutely essential to ensuring that those young Marines can get on with what ever their real job is instead of supporting the technology."
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