Tampa Bay Rays hit home run with virtualization that enables tablets with core applications in the field

Listen to the podcast. Find it on iTunes/iPod. Read a full transcript or download a copy. Sponsor: VMware.

Our next VMworld case study interview scouts out how the Tampa Bay Rays, a Major League Baseball team, is using an extensive amount of virtualization on and off the field.

The Rays’ IT department has just started bringing more and more of their applications, data, and processes out to the mobile tier using virtualization and thin-client approaches to make the preferred mobile device, the tablet, super powerful for them. And they’re extending the value of virtualization into disaster recovery (DR) too.

This story comes as part of a special BriefingsDirect podcast series from the recent VMworld 2011 Conference. The series explores the latest in cloud computing and virtualization infrastructure developments.

To hear more winning statistics about the Rays and their back-end to client virtualization experience, we’re joined by Juan Ramirez, Senior Director for Information Technology with the Tampa Bay Rays. The discussion is moderated by Dana Gardner, Principal Analyst at Interarbor Solutions. [Disclosure: VMware is a sponsor of BriefingsDirect podcasts.]

Here are some excerpts:

Gardner: Why has virtualization been good for your organization?

Ramirez: Back in 2007 when we first looked out at virtualization, we had a lot of issues. Our main data center was located at our stadium in Saint Petersburg, Fla. We were actually running out of space. Electricity was a huge problem. We kept hearing from our operations department that our data centers and our equipment were just consuming too much energy.

We had to come up with a new data center. We needed to build something else, because we were just basically outgrowing it. We needed a plan to say, “You know what, this is going to be our new data center. We’re going to be there 5 to 10 years,” without going back and requesting additional space or consuming more electricity.

That’s when everything started. We went from a two-room data center room to basically just using half of that room with virtualization. We started very small — four hosts to manage our own infrastructure. Now we have 10 hosts in production and growing.

Another dilemma that we had was every time we needed to provision servers, or a new application needed to be introduced, it would have taken weeks, if not a month, for us to procure the proper hardware and software to make this available for different departments. So we needed to cut time on that and make things happen faster. It is a fast business.

Gardner: To what degree have you actually embraced virtualization?

Ramirez: Currently, we’re at 95 percent. We had certain goals to start — about 50 percent — and gradually every year just adding more and more resources. At 95 percent, you can see that we really value this, and this is the route that our business is going to.

Gardner: What IT does it take to support a major league team?

Ramirez: First of all, coming from a small-market team, we don’t have the luxury to have a large IT department to support the 300 plus users that we currently have. So it’s very important for us to be very proactive and be ahead of the game.

It is a 24×7 operation, especially during the season, which as we all know, is one of the longest in professional sports, with 162 games per year, not counting playoffs. So it is challenging for us, but I believe that we have a great team.

We also have great resources that we’ve implemented in the last five or six years and we’re on top of it. Without VMware and the different products that we deploy, I think today we’d be in a lot of trouble if we wouldn’t have gone that route.

Gardner: Clearly it’s working for you. Tell me about how many apps you’re supporting. What sort of workloads have you?

Ramirez: From the applications perspective, we have everything from our scanning application, which is homegrown SQL back-end, Windows application front-end, and web-based front-end to our finance departments, Great Plains, Microsoft Great Plains 2010.

We also have our customer relationship management (CRM) system, which runs on a proprietary application from Ticketmaster, to homegrown application. Close to 10-30 applications are used on a daily basis from every department and different aspect, which is incredible.

Our email system, Microsoft Exchange 2010, is 100 percent virtualized. And every new application that comes up in our pipeline is basically virtualized. Going forward, nothing resides in our physical server, which is tremendous for us.

Products enrich the roster

When we started, we wanted to go slow and to make sure that everyone throughout the organization had a good feel for it, a good vibe. Once we earned the trust from the different departments and other department heads, we introduced it, we showed them and we trained them. It was a no-brainer. Everyone was on board. Everyone loved the technology. Just loved the fact that while it previously took weeks and months for them to provision anything from our department, it’s now hours, at the most, which is great.

It also helps us big time with disaster recovery (DR). Our second data center is located in our Port Charlotte Spring Training facility. It’s easier for us to move workloads, depending on where we’re at in the season and the time of the year. We can move a machine from the production main data center to the backup data center and provide those resources over to our different departments.

When we started with DR, it was a very tough decision because we wanted to do everything automated, but management did not see the need for it. So we actually started with manual processes. We started building a data center down in Port Charlotte. We did some migrations and that didn’t work out too well. So we came back to the drawing board and said, we need a tool that can help us automate this process. This has to be 100 percent automated.

Our recovery manager had just come out and we wanted to test it. We actually beta tested it and received some evaluation licenses. We put together a quick product to show administration and management how good the product was and how important it was to us, especially in the location that we are at.

The rest is basically history. We have pretty much 100 percent coverage on everything that is virtualized. We’re able to take periodic snaps and move them over to the VR facility, where we do a weekly test of each individual virtual machine (VM).

Gardner: So that must make you sleep a little better during hurricane season?

Ramirez: Absolutely. It used to be nightmare from June to the end of September around here, but not anymore.

Gardner: Let’s move into this other innovative area you have been experimenting with, and it’s the use VMware View 4.6. You’ve been involved with moving into thin clients, virtualized desktops, and I understand also using mobile apps on tablets. Tell me why that’s been important for you and what you’ve done.

250 remote users

Ramirez: Throughout the year, we’ve grown tremendously. We now have close to 250 remote users. All those remote users need to be equipped with very expensive laptops. It’s very expensive and very hard to manage.

We’re a small IT department. It’s very hard to track down 250 users throughout the year. It’s very hard to keep older machines up-to-date. When something goes wrong, it gets ugly pretty fast. We needed to get an alternative and come up with a plan where it would be easier to manage, where it would be easier for them to conduct their work.

We started very basic by putting the in VMware View client. First of all, we set up a lab here and asked a few of our key guys to test and give us some feedback. The feedback was overwhelming. We started with five or six guys, and now we probably have close to 65 users using it on a daily basis.

Users have come back and handed in their laptops. Now, they’re strictly on iPad or Android tablet, which is tremendous for us. It’s easier for my department to manage. It’s easier for them to go out there on the field and just use a lightweight device to connect and conduct business with it.

So it’s big for us right now. It should be a huge hit in the upcoming year. With our development department, everything that we are projecting is basically basing it on VMware View.

Gardner: In addition to VMware View, you also seem to be using an iPad app, how did that come about? How does that fit into the equation?

Ramirez: That came as we started adding more users and receiving feedback. I started using it for my daily management show, introduced a few key personnel to it, and they liked the idea. Now, everyone is basically using that app to connect and do most of their work.

We decided to introduce other departments and show them the capability and how easy it is to connect and get their business done without turning on their laptop — waiting for it to boot, the VPN, the password, and all that stuff that sometimes gets in the way.

Gardner: I understand you have scouts, managers, you have lots of folks out in the field. They’re at ballparks. They’re watching ballplayers. They’re in the field, and can they just download an iPad app and then sign into VMware View. How do they actually connect in, and what are the logistics for really linking your resources and apps out to that field?

Everyone wants a tablet

Ramirez: Everyone in the organization wants a tablet. They come to us, which helps us big time. Normally we do the procurement for them, or if they go out there and buy it, they will just bring it over to us, and by default our installation and process includes that application. It’s the first application that they’re introduced to.

My department is able to figure the necessary settings on the application and just leave it ready for them and let them know that right now you can just use your iPad application to connect into your resources and conduct, and use most of the applications that you will be using on a daily basis. It’s a big plus for us and for the user. They just love the fact that they have a small application, a small tablet, and one application to deal with. Everything else is handled from our end.

Gardner: So this is productivity for you, because you’re supporting more users in the way that they want to work, probably with fewer resources when it all comes down to it, when you can consolidate. And then they’re getting that added productivity of access to the data and the apps wherever they are, whenever they want to use it. So it’s kind of a win-win.

Ramirez: Absolutely. From a management perspective, it’s great, it’s awesome, getting apps for a better application and a better system to have deployed.

We’ve had nightmares throughout the years, lost laptops with very sensitive information. We have to protect users, and there are so many things that goes on on a daily basis. Now if there’s an issue, it just takes seconds to correct, and the users just go back in and continue doing their work.

Gardner: What’s been the return on investment (ROI) for you moving in these directions?

Ramirez: The ROI has been huge. We used to buy 10-15 servers on a yearly basis. Now, we just procure our servers every three or four years. We get hit from left and right with different departments. They have different needs — we need 10 servers, we need 15 servers. We no longer have to procure those and spend all that money right away. We have resources allocated for it.

So the ROI has been there. As a matter of fact, we did research two years ago and have discovered that on our initial investment for both data centers the return on investment was 24 months, which was probably more than we thought. We didn’t realize how fast we were able to recoup our investment and how much flexibility we had moving forward.

For DR, we were coming from a situation where we had nothing. Everything was in one data center, and if a storm came by, we would basically be out of business. Having a fully automated system in place is huge for us.

Very important

don’t even know where to start and what number to tag this with, but it is very important to us. It has helped with insurance cost. It has helped with just the ease of everyone knowing that if something happens near our stadium, we have our data and we can still conduct business moving forward.

We are buying fewer laptops. We no longer need all the extra services that with 250 laptops can get very costly. Instead of ordering an $1,800 laptop for a user, which normally lives 12-24 months, now we can just buy an iPad or have the users use their own iPad, and connect. That makes a big saving for us going forward.

We have very big plans to move ahead and try to be 99 percent virtualized. Private cloud is very important. It’s high for us. We keep growing, and our needs and demands are huge. So we definitely have a lot of plans.

Coming down the line, we’re counting big on the upcoming vSphere 5 and SRM 5. That’s going to help us tremendously. It has some features there that are must-have for us.

Again, moving forward, application development and everything will hopefully be based on a thin app and ease of use and administration for our users. VMware View is another big component for us.

Listen to the podcast. Find it on iTunes/iPod. Read a full transcript or download a copy. Sponsor: VMware.

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About Dana Gardner

Dana Gardner is president and principal analyst at Interarbor Solutions, an enterprise IT analysis, market research, and consulting firm. Gardner, a leading identifier of software and cloud productivity trends and new IT business growth opportunities, honed his skills and refined his insights as an industry analyst, pundit, and news editor covering the emerging software development and enterprise infrastructure arenas for the last 18 years. Gardner tracks and analyzes a critical set of enterprise software technologies and business development issues: Cloud computing, hybrid IT, software-defined data center, IT productivity, multicloud, AI, ML, and intelligent enterprise. His specific interests include social media, cloud standards and security, as well as integrated marketing technologies and techniques. Gardner is a former senior analyst at Yankee Group and Aberdeen Group, and a former editor-at-large and founding online news editor at InfoWorld. He is a former news editor at IDG News Service, Digital News & Review, and Design News.
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