Pella opens window of opportunity with database virtualization software

Window maker Pella uses virtual databases for testing and development. Its advice: IT pros eyeing the technology should get elevator pitches ready.

Technology professionals mulling the prospect of a database virtualization software initiative should remember to keep two things in mind, according to John McConeghey, an IT manager at Pella Corp., a well-known manufacturer of windows and doors.

First off, it's important to allow plenty of time to roll the software out gradually on an as-needed basis. And secondly, make sure to have a clear explanation prepared as to just what the heck database virtualization is -- because the question will come up a lot when IT managers attempt to justify the investment to department heads, C-level executives and business users.

The time it takes to come up with a clear description and elevator pitch for database virtualization is well worth it, he added, because of the efficiency gains and financial savings that can result from using the software.

What is database virtualization?

Database virtualization software is used to create multiple "virtual" copies of a physical database instance and allows individual users and applications access to their own independent copy. The process of launching a virtual database for application testing and development purposes is generally quicker and less expensive than the traditional approach, which typically requires organizations to create and store bulky physical copies of production databases.

"Sometimes you're talking to other managers and they just can't grasp the concept [at first]," McConeghey said. "'What do you mean you're virtualizing this? I don't understand.'"

Pella's path to database virtualization began in 2010 after a capital expenditure review revealed that two of the company's storage area networks and some disk arrays were nearing "end of life [and] end of support."

Those systems were often used to store copies of production databases for application testing and development purposes. But replacing them outright would be a very expensive proposition, and McConeghey's team wanted to find an alternative approach. The company ultimately decided to go with database virtualization software from Santa Clara, Calif.-based Delphix Inc.

A brief history of Delphix

Delphix, which was founded in 2008, currently boasts more than 50 corporate customers including Pella, Facebook, Tivo, Informatica Corp. and Comcast. They use Delphix as a speedier and less expensive alternative to traditional -- and often time-consuming -- database testing and development processes, according to Jim Duggan, a vice president and applications management analyst with Gartner Inc., a Stamford, Conn.-based IT research firm.

For example, application developers creating or customizing new modules that run on top of enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems may find that provisioning a database for testing "takes weeks, creating a database copy from that module [takes another week] and refreshing that copy takes yet another week," according to Delphix's website. 

Delphix says its software eliminates the time and expense associated with provisioning physical databases and greatly speeds up the application development process by taking snapshots of production databases and running them in a virtual or distributed environment. The virtual databases are actually compressed versions of production instances that reduce data redundancy while maintaining functionality. Duggan said there are very few vendors that offer database virtualization in a similar manner.  

"To my knowledge, I can't think of a direct competitor in the virtualization space," he said. "There are some companies that come sort of close in the sense that their software will generate test data sets from a set of rules they get from scanning the production instance."

Parasoft is one example of a software vendor that offers similar functionality. Another is Compuware Inc., which offers a product called File-AID that, among other things, let users create obfuscated copies of production database records for testing and development. Duggan said the key difference between File-AID and Delphix software is that the latter allows users to create test instances that can be used repeatedly with relative ease.

"When you're creating a specific test instance, now you've got the problem of what to do with it. I use it once or I make a copy and then have to move it," he said. "With Delphix, when you grab your snapshot [you've got] a copy that you can refresh over and over again."

Delphix's product currently works with Oracle Database versions 9 through 11g, Oracle Real Application Clusters and Oracle Exadata machines. The company is also currently beta testing a new version of its software that works with Microsoft SQL Server.

Implementing data virtualization software

One of the key factors that helped Pella achieve solid results with database virtualization was the company's decision to give itself plenty of time to implement the technology. 

For more on database virtualization software

Find out how TiVo is using database virtualization technology

See if your Oracle database is ready to be virtualized

"It was kind of nice that we had chosen to do this long before our arrays were set to expire," McConeghey said. "We didn't feel abundantly rushed. We really started planning this about a year before they went end of life."

The cushy schedule afforded Pella the opportunity to implement the software on a department-by-department basis, he explained. It also gave McConeghey's team time to get buy-in from managers who feared that the technology might lead to department heads losing ownership of data.

The company began rolling out virtual databases in 2011, whenever an individual business unit or developer approached IT for a new or refreshed test environment. One benefit of the approach was that Pella's database administrators grew more and more comfortable with the technology each time they rolled out a new virtual database. The entire implementation process took about four to five months.

"The more you can plan in advance, the better off you're going to be," he said. "We always felt in control of our schedule. We never felt like we were pushing ourselves or our team to their limit and making them work excruciatingly long hours and weekends."

Mark Brunelli is the News Director for Follow him on Twitter: @Brunola88.

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