Marines look for a few less servers, via virtualization

US Marine Corps adopting an enterprisewide approach to virtualization

The US Marine Corps intends to take server virtualization technology into war -- literally -- as part of an effort to improve its IT deployments on the battlefield.

"The Marine Corps has always packed stuff up and taken it to the field -- that is not new," said Major Carl Brodhun, the USMC's project officer for enterprise virtualization. "The ability to cram 35 applications into five or six physical hosts is relatively new."

Marines in the field can't rely on fat or stable network connections, "so being able to compress a high number of applications into a constrained footprint" makes it easier for them to continue operating even if connectivity is reduced, Brodhun said.

The Marines are adopting an enterprisewide approach to virtualization via an agreement that was announced last week by market leader VMware. As part of the deal, the USMC plans to reduce its current total of about 300 data centers to 30 IT facilities plus 100 "mobile platforms."

Brodhun said the mobile platforms could take any number of forms, from individual servers packed in transit cases to multiple servers racked in trailers or vehicles for use in shelters -- creating a mobile data center, essentially.

The Marines operate a diverse IT environment that includes about half of all the operating systems developed thus far, according to Brodhun. The military branch runs 12,000 x86-based servers alone, he said.

A major goal of the new x86 virtualization strategy is increasing system availability and continuity of operations, Brodhun added. For instance, he said that when the USMC's IT organization wants to take a server offline for maintenance, it now must make a half-dozen or so announcements starting 30 days prior to the scheduled shutdown. It also has to do the shutdown late at night.

With virtualization, the plan is to simply move the guest systems to another server and continue application services without interruption, Brodhun said.

The USMC's use of virtualization software began with an ad hoc approach that was firmly in the military tradition of improvising to tackle a problem. In this case, Marines who were helping with the relief effort after Asia and Africa were hit by devastating earthquake-triggered tsunamis in December 2004 found that they had more applications than physical servers.

That prompted them to use virtualization technology on the systems, according to Brodhun, who credited "ingenuity shown by some young Marines" for starting the virtualization ball rolling.

Within the USMC, he said, if something "works and works well," then the next step is to formalize it "and turn it back around with some deliberate processes and procedures."

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