In 2005, Data Return actively began looking for a solution to all these challenges. At the time, it was using AMD Opteron technology for dedicated servers and larger SQL servers. "We started using Opteron as a platform of choice," Lochhead says. "There were a number of reasons for that. AMD was the only one that supported x64 [64-bit microprocessor architecture], and the reasons we chose it for quad socktype configurations were its HyperTransport technology [a high-speed, low-latency, point-to-point link] and the integrated memory control. We received better scalability as we added more processors, so it made sense to use AMD Opteron processors for the larger servers."
With its existing IT infrastructure, Data Return was able to meet customers' needseven those of seasonal companies like H&R Blockbut not as efficiently, or effectively, as Lochhead would have liked. In order to meet those needs, Data Return would have servers in a standby or sleeper mode, and would power those up and let customers use them for whatever time they needed. "That worked, but it wasn't really a very elegant solution," Lochhead points out. "It was also pretty capital-intensive on the customer's part, so we wanted to see if there were some better solutions out there."
With the AMD processors already integrated into Data Return's server farmsthe company has computer operations in Dallas, San Francisco and LondonData Return began looking at virtualization as a way to provide a better, utility computing-type offering, according to Lochhead. The virtualization solution was to be based on dual-core Opteron processors running VMware virtual infrastructure software on Hewlett-Packard ProLiant DL385 and DL585 servers. "We'd been partnering with HP for years, and we'd already started with AMD," Lochhead says. "We talked to [AMD] about what the road map was, and we'd already begun working with VMware virtual infrastructure software. I had already been using it for a year in our lab."
In mid-2005, Data Return started the project in one data center, doing a lot of testing and planning up front. "We began with a fairly small implementation but with an eye to expanding it rapidly," Lochhead says. Today, Data Return has adapted virtualization in its Dallas and San Francisco data centers, but has not yet implemented it in the London center. "Technically, it hasn't been that hard to roll out," he says. "The toughest part was a change of culture and a change in the way of doing things for the technical people. We have this virtual layer that enables them to do a lot of things they couldn't do in the past. They have to get used to dealing in that environment."
As a pioneer in virtualized hosting, Data Return was initially worried that the market might not be ready or willing to operate in a virtual environment as well. "We were afraid people would not be willing to run production-level servers in a virtual environment," Lochhead says. "What we found, however, is that a vast majority of customers already have some kind of VMware in their environment, so it hasn't been as difficult to sell as we expected."
Even midsize customers, which normally require less computing power and have far smaller IT budgets than Fortune 1000 companies, are primed for virtualization, Lochhead believes. In fact, Data Return is rolling out a new utility-enabled managed services platform called Infinistructure to pursue the midsize market.