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Running CRM on virtual servers becoming a reality

While CRM may not be the first application one would consider for a server virtualization project, it's starting to see some use and in some cases is creating demand for virtualization.

CRM may not be the first application one thinks of when operating in a virtual environment, but advances in hardware and software are beginning to make that a reality.

"It's definitely not something you would start with typically," said Chris Wolf, senior analyst with Midvale, Utah-based Burton Group. "But last year, and particularly into this year, there's been some interest. There's a movement to virtualizing Tier 1 and Tier 2 applications. A lot has to do with improvements in hardware."

Enterprise applications have traditionally had trouble running in virtual environments because of the way the virtualization layer handles memory, Wolf said. The applications would create memory bottlenecks, and IT often assumed that was a network or I/O problem when it was usually an architectural bottleneck. Much of that issue has been removed by hardware-assisted memory virtualization, he said.

"The release of hardware platforms and software that can support those features allows applications as robust as Oracle databases to run in virtual machines without substantial performance overhead," Wolf said.

Resurrection Health Care, a Chicago-based healthcare system, launched a Microsoft CRM implementation several years ago and is now running some of that on virtual servers.

"We're slowly stepping into it," said Jason Paugys, senior network administrator with Resurrection Health Care. "This began as a good candidate for a test bed. We're looking for servers that are not quite production."

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Looking to establish a testing environment for the Microsoft CRM system, Paugys didn't have the funding required for dedicated hardware, so virtual servers became an attractive alternative. Resurrection is running Microsoft Dynamics CRM 4.0 in a testing environment on virtualized SQL Server 2005 using VMware 3.5.

As it makes customizations to the CRM application, Resurrection has a handful of people in IT running the virtual test environment, but it plans to expand that to eight or nine users for testing certification, Paugys said.

Resurrection called in Sonoma Partners, a Chicago-based Microsoft partner, to serve as the technical architect for the CRM system and customize Dynamics CRM -- for example, incorporating physician relationship management on top of sales, service and marketing.

"They helped us with figuring out estimates of cost and overall planning of the project," said David Ranelli, senior project manager with Resurrection Health Care. "When we took it to the next step, they helped us with customizations and configurations. Now we're taking over customizations."

Virtualization and the IT-business divide

According to Wolf, in some organizations IT is now pushing virtualization on the business units.

"They're making virtual machines the default container for all new applications and making business users justify why they need new hardware," he said. "The business gets mobility and reduced costs to run their application in a virtual environment."

Fiserv, a Brookfield, Wis.-based software vendor for banks and other financial institutions, has also been piloting Microsoft Dynamics CRM in a virtual environment in its Revenue Enhancement Solutions division. It recently signed on to become a Microsoft CRM reseller, and the Revenue Enhancement division hopes to "become a beacon within the organization" for CRM, said Robert Pittman, managing principal for the group.

Fiserv is running Microsoft Dynamics CRM in a virtual environment to test different configurations of the system for clients based on different operating systems, as well as for its demos.

"It allows our sales consultants to extend, enhance and share demo environments," Pittman said. "They can run them in a portal off of local boxes or off our local demo server."

Fiserv is not a heavy user of server virtualization across the organization, but within Pittman's division, CRM created the demand.

"The adoption of CRM pushed our need for virtualization," Pittman said. "We had a legacy CRM product that was kind of a purpose-built Java version of our solution. The nature of CRM, with all the various services and options, as well as the way it supports ISV customization, really pushed us toward the need for a virtual server environment. Virtualization became an imperative because of CRM."

There are a number of advantages to running CRM in a virtual environment, according to Wolf.

"When looking at a multi-tiered application like CRM, there's security benefits you can realize," he said. "In the past, I may have run multi-application tiers on the same physical server so I can get full use out of hardware. With virtualization, I can run each in a separate machine, which lowers the attack profile."

Some businesses will look at server virtualization as part of a CRM upgrade, while others will upgrade first and then do the conversion to a virtual environment. They'll deploy on a vanilla operating system and then do the migration of the database, Wolf said, which makes for a cleaner install.

"The real key," he said, "is to leverage the newer hardware that gives you the hardware server virtualization benefits and do your diligence to properly benchmark."

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