Welch Foods: Out of a Jam with Virtualization

As Welch Foods was shutting down a grape processing plant in Kennewick, Wash., and transferring operations to nearby Grandview this winter, managers at the Grandview plant asked the information-technology staff to speed up the replacement of one of the outdated servers from Kennewick. In years past, fulfilling that request would have meant ordering a server, waiting a couple of weeks for it to arrive, configuring the machine, installing the application and shipping it cross-country along with a technician to set it up. “It would have been three weeks, minimum,” says Jacob Matusevich, manager of networks and server technologies, in a mid-March interview at his office in Concord, Mass. Instead, he got it done in less than an hour.

How? Instead of deploying a new physical server, Matusevich’s staff was able to activate a new virtual machine on a virtual server—ESX Server from Palo Alto, Calif.-based VMware, running on Dell hardware and deployed
in Grandview as part of the consolidation of the Washington State plants. Even though computer operations employees manage the West Coast plant remotely from Lawton, Mich., and from headquarters in Concord, Mass., they can
now respond to these requests quickly—often within minutes—marking a significant change in the way Welch’s runs
its computers.

Server virtualization makes it possible to host multiple applications on a single physical server, but within an isolated software environment that lets each application run as if it were on its own. That means each application can run on a different operating system or version of an operating system, or the same one with different configuration tweaks. This simulated computing environment is known as a virtual machine.

With VMware, each of these virtual machines can be reduced to an image file—a snapshot of the server environment, including the application, operating system and configuration choices—and that file can be moved or copied from one machine to another. And that’s how Welch’s can bring a new server online quickly, sometimes in as little as 15 to 20 minutes, by cloning a previously prepared server image, customizing it as necessary and setting it to run on a VMware host.

Welch’s is the food processing and marketing arm of The National Grape Cooperative Association; it makes and sells Welch’s juices and jellies and distributes the proceeds to the growers, who are essentially its shareholders. Welch’s is headquartered in Concord, Mass., and has production facilities in New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Washington. Its growers manage nearly 50,000 acres of vineyards in Pennsylvania, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Washington and Ontario, Canada, and harvested 413,344 tons of Concord and Niagara grapes in 2005. But in 2005, the company was also recovering from a poor 2004 harvest, which conspired with rising expenses to cut profits to $58.5 million from $75 million the year before. Revenues in 2005 remained flat at $577.8 million, up by $292,000 over 2004.

The closing of the Kennewick plant is one symptom of the cost-cutting Welch’s has engaged in to improve its margins.

On the scale of Welch’s operations, the direct cost savings from virtualization are small, although “every little bit helps,” Matusevich says. He estimates the savings from running 10 ESX servers in place of about 100 standalone servers at $331,000. That is, each ESX server costs about $38,900, including the Dell server hardware and four-processor VMware license, or $389,000 for the 10 virtual servers. To achieve comparable functionality by purchasing standalone servers, Welch’s would have had to spend about $7,200 each, or $720,000 for 100 units.

But the use of VMware, which Welch’s began researching in 2002 and first deployed in 2003, was driven less by cost savings than by the flexibility it offered for day-to-day operations, backup and recovery, and disaster recovery, according to Matusevich.

For day-to-day operations, Welch’s currently runs 14 ESX servers, including the 10 at headquarters. Deployment of VMware servers to grape processing plants around the country is just beginning, spurred by the Washington plant consolidation. There has to be a physical server equipped with VMware at a location before a virtual machine can be deployed.

As a result, Grandview was the first plant to deploy an ESX server early this year, following the decision to close the Kennewick plant. Given the need to consolidate computer operations between the two plants and scrap some outdated server hardware, George Scangas, Welch’s senior infrastructure analyst, recommended consolidation of about a dozen servers onto a single Dell server with redundant hardware, running the ESX software. The remote management virtues of VMware were important to this decision because Grandview has no I.T. staff of its own, instead getting support from Rick Reeves, a technology manager based at a plant in Lawton, Mich.

This was Reeves’ first exposure to the VMware system, which is now also being deployed in Lawton. Scangas provided training and built the first couple of virtual machines, then supervised while Reeves built the rest. “I’d read the literature, but it was even easier than I’d expected it to be,” Reeves says. “You don’t often find that.” He is now following up with a VMware deployment at his own plant.

Get the Free Newsletter!

Subscribe to Daily Tech Insider for top news, trends, and analysis.

Latest Articles