When Cigna Corp., one of the largest health insurers in the United States, needed a way to take advantage of underutilized computing resources while reducing operating expenses, it turned to server virtualization—specifically, Microsoft Corp.s Microsoft Virtual Server.
The Philadelphia-based Cigna last year joined Microsofts JDP (Joint Development Program) to pilot-test Microsoft Virtual Server in Cignas testing and development laboratories. The decision to use—and, in fact, help develop—Microsoft Virtual Server will reduce the number of physical servers in Cignas testing and development environment by an estimated 25 percent, said Ben Flock, vice president of application frameworks and virtualization at Cigna, in its Bloomfield, Conn., offices.
Getting a handle on server sprawl will not only reduce operating expenses, Flock said, but will also decrease total cost of ownership by as much as 8 percent.
“I have a clear objective, and that is to look at how I can take a technology to consolidate servers and reduce expenses,” Flock said. “We have significant sprawl and a lot of underutilized capacity. Our goal with virtualization is to enhance and improve shared infrastructure capabilities.”
Cigna isnt alone in its desire to improve server utilization rates, increase server flexibility and reduce overall server spending through virtualization. Research company Gartner Inc. estimates that 25 percent of Fortune 1000 enterprises will be using partitioning technologies for Windows server deployments by the end of next year. That number is expected to increase to more than 40 percent by the end of 2007.
Cigna offers group life and disability insurance, among other services, to more than 13 million customers. Last year, Cigna implemented a companywide IT initiative designed to increase efficiency and productivity while lowering operating costs. This initiative included a Microsoft Windows Server 2003 deployment in Cignas distributed computing environment of about 3,500 servers.
As Cigna migrated to Windows Server 2003, Flock determined that server virtualization would enable the company to take advantage of underutilized capacity in its testing and development environment. The company began a comparative analysis in the second quarter of last year that examined virtualization products such as GSX Server from VMware Inc. and Microsoft Virtual Server, which was still in development at the time. (Microsoft Virtual Server is expected to become available this summer; for a review of VMwares GSX Server 3.0.)
Cigna had specific needs for virtualization. Flock wanted to focus predominantly on the testing and development environment, using virtual machine capabilities to reduce the number of servers and improve utilization.
Flock said that although VMwares products are mature and pervasive, Cigna didnt need all their features. Cignas decision to become a Microsoft JDP partner gave the insurer early access to Microsoft Virtual Server code and a role in the products development.
“We werent looking for broad production usage and had a really fixed and focused requirement for virtualization, which Virtual Server is meeting,” Flock said. “We looked to leverage our existing deployment of Windows Server 2003 because it had enhanced isolation and shared infrastructure capabilities that would allow us to take consolidated servers and reduce operating expenses.”
Cigna operates a multiplatform IT infrastructure that supports its file and print, database, and Web-based services. Servers run applications in preproduction, production, testing, integration testing and development environments. As a result, testing and operating a single application, such as billing, can require as many as 10 dedicated servers, Flock said.
Microsoft Virtual Server enables Cigna to run multiple applications on a single server. The company uses application virtualization to run multiple DLLs in different test and development environments on a single server. By consolidating current business applications and running multiple testing environments on a server, Cigna has been able to significantly reduce the time needed to introduce a new application.
Because Microsoft Virtual Server is in beta, some of its features, including hyperthreading, are still being debugged. Through its participation in the JDP, Cigna has been able to suggest changes to ensure that hyperthreading and other features still under development will be ready for use when the product is released later this year, according to Darrell Cook, project lead at Cigna.
Flock expects Cignas pilot of Microsoft Virtual Server to be completed at the end of next quarter. While he is not ruling out the possibility of broadening the products use to Cignas production and training environments, he said Cigna has no plans to do so now.
Flock and Cook are also looking at the possibility of leveraging 64-bit computing for midrange hosting with IBMs DB2 and database management systems applications. For now, however, they are keeping 64-bit computing and virtualization independent of each other. (Microsoft officials have said that Microsoft Virtual Server will include 64-bit support.)
Flock said results from the pilot test have been positive so far. As a result, he said, Cigna will move forward with a deployment of the technology this summer. “Virtualization enables us to move more quickly in the marketplace and foster application delivery,” Flock said. “This way, we can dedicate more time to identifying issues and choosing business opportunities that maximize our competitive advantage and [spend less time] on the underlying infrastructure.”
Senior Writer Anne Chen can be reached at [email protected].