"It was a very quick overview, and I was kind of intrigued by it," Shinabarger, now the manager of information security at Dominos, told eWEEK in an extensive interview detailing the companys three-year adoption of virtualization technology within its main data center and remote sites. "On top of that, too, we did have problems. We had an aging server fleet and applications that were still running on [Windows] NT 4.0, and we were looking [for a way to replace] the hardware that was dying and a way to keep everything intact while our developers moved off of that platform."
It would take a lot of convincing—not only of immediate bosses but other company executives as well—over several months by Shinabarger and the IT department to implement what three years later seems like a fairly simple use of virtualization. Namely, Shinabarger and his staff sought a new way to move and then consolidate mission-critical applications from an aging, out-of-warranty server fleet to newer systems with more RAM and data capacity, better processor power, and enhanced security.
Dominos, of Ann Arbor, Mich., is an expansive company with 145,000 franchise partners and employees worldwide.
Along with the aging server fleet, IT administrators such as Shinabarger were concerned about recovering information if a disaster hit. There were also cost and space considerations as the companys IT infrastructure grew and adding servers became the norm rather than the exception. In addition to its data center, the company uses several remote sites for tasks such as disaster recovery and data backup.
Complicating the companys internal infrastructure is how Dominos is structured. On one hand, the IT department supports and is responsible for about 1,600 pieces of hardware in the companys main data center and remote locations. On the other hand, the IT staff is also responsible for more than 40,000 systems when all the companys franchises—which can plug into the main network—are added into the picture. "Were the smallest big company that you have ever seen," Shinabarger said.
In an e-mail, Jason McCracken, senior network engineer with Dominos, detailed the companys infrastructure.
"Dominos, like many other franchise infrastructures, has infrastructure to support our corporate operations and infrastructure to support stores [and] franchisees," McCracken wrote. "Once we take into account all the services, such as network connectivity, that we support for franchisees, the number of devices (and users) rises exponentially. We also have to take into account being able to support our development team(s) who work on our public Web sites (such as Dominos.com) and the support provided for them."
Adding to an already-complicated picture is that when Dominos first jumped into virtualization in the fall of 2004, there were no road maps to follow. As one IT worker said, if other companies with franchises were setting up virtualization in the data center, they were not going to share their results with a significant rival.
Virtualization, which uses software commonly referred to as a hypervisor, enables physical hardware—such as a server, PC or storage device—to be partitioned, allowing multiple operating systems or applications to run on the hardware independent of one another.
While virtualization can be traced back to IBMs mainframes in the late 1960s, it was VMware—the vendor that Dominos turned to as it began its virtualization of the data center—that brought the technology to the rapidly expanding x86 market. Now owned by EMC, VMware, which is preparing to sell 10 percent of the company in an initial public offering this summer, is the market leader in the field.
VMwares success and the acceptance of virtualization technology as a mainstream IT tool have prompted a number of other companies to enter the field, including SWsoft; Parallels; Virtual Iron; and XenSource, whose founders helped develop the open-source Xen hypervisor as an alternative to proprietary technology.
"I think there has been a big change just in the last three years with what companies like VMware have done with bringing virtualization technology to common platforms like x86 servers," said Charles King, an analyst with Pund-IT. "Prior to this, virtualization was very much an enterprise-only product. What VMware and, to a lesser extent, the Xen open-source initiative did was bring the technology to a much-larger audience and allow the technology to be deployed on multiple platforms. This has all happened in just the past few years, and it has really arrived as a mainstream product."
In addition to these companies, some major IT vendors have begun touting the benefits of virtualization in their products. Microsoft is expected to expand its virtualization capabilities in the companys much-anticipated "Longhorn" server operating system when its released next year, while Sun Microsystems executives are talking up the virtualization capabilities in Solaris. Intel and Advanced Micro Devices have begun building virtualization into their processors.
These developments have led analysts to predict that the virtualization market will grow rapidly in the coming years. A May 8 report by research company Gartner found that, while there were about 540,000 virtual machines worldwide in 2006, there could be as many as 4 million in 2009. Much of that growth will involve desktop virtualization, which analysts said could grow faster than what has already occurred in the data center, thanks in large part to the sheer numbers of PCs worldwide.