Nissan uses 20 Dell R900 servers in their Tennessee plant data center's new virtualized architecture.  (Source: Dell)

Nissan also uses 8 Dell 2950 rack servers, as well.  (Source: Dell)
Nissan answers all our questions about its new virtualization deployment.

Yesterday, we reported on Nissan's efforts to use virtualization technologies -- with software from Microsoft and hardware from Dell -- to improve their Smyrna (vehicle assembly) and Decherd (engine manufacturing -- Nissan and Infiniti) assembly plants, located in Tennessee.  While the numbers in that piece were certainly interesting, most readers wanted more specifics -- the kind that only Nissan's engineers could provide.  Did Nissan go "virtualization crazy" wondered one reader -- or was their decision founded on logic?  DailyTech contacted Nissan to answer that get the full story on how and why these plants went virtualized.

Perhaps the single most important metric presented was the amount of servers that Nissan was purchasing over a five year period.  Previously Nissan had purchased 159 servers for the plants, in a five-year span.  Using virtualization, they dropped this number to 28 servers to be purchased every five years.  In other words, they cut their server purchases by 80 percent over a five year cycle -- yielding major cost, energy and space savings.

The Nissan server farm is a diverse mix of database servers, application servers, and other specialized servers like print servers.  These servers send signals to over 5,000 devices on the floor including HMIs (wired and wireless), PLCs, Marquees, Wireless PDAs, Wireless Scanners, utility meters, identification equipment (e.g. Smarteye readers/RFID readers) and printers, as well as additional signals that go to plant robots.  Still other servers run applications that track metrics and help cut costs, or send build data to the plant floor employees.

Nissan's internal customers -- production, maintenance, and other departments -- had been consistently demanding more quality, tracking, and cost management applications.  Many of these applications couldn't coexist on the same server.  So while some servers had idle resources, instead new servers had to be purchased.  Describes Matt Slipher, Systems Engineer at Nissan, "Say a customer comes up to me and says 'I have this new application (or system) which I want to put in the system.'  I wouldn't just buy one server -- I would buy three." 

"It was getting out of control," adds Phil D'Antonio, manager of Conveyors and Controls Engineering at Nissan (NA).

The server farm ballooned to 159 servers.  At that point Nissan engineers decided they had to act.  The pressure was high, though.  Any upgraded architecture would have to withstand a rigorous workload.  As Phil D'Antonio states, "If those servers stop, the metal in the building stops.  They are very important -- mission critical."

After careful analysis, a virtualization scheme was devised.  For hypervisor software, Nissan investigated Microsoft's Hyper-V and a competitive offering from a "leading competitor" (VMWare).  In the end the two matched up about evenly in performance, but the Microsoft virtualization software prevailed as Nissan's systems already ran Microsoft SQL clusters, web servers, and other Microsoft products, making management easier with Hyper-V.

For hardware, 20 Dell R900, and 8 Dell 2950 rack servers were purchased.  The Dell servers provided four Xeon quad-core Intel processors per server, for a total of 16 CPU cores per server.  The servers were arrange in 6 server clusters with 4 active servers, with 32 GB of memory each, and 2 passive servers, with 64 GB of memory each.  Each server has a 4 Gbit/s HBA connection and four 4 Gbit/s ethernet NIC connections.

The servers handle a lot of legacy software -- Nissan engineers during the upgrade moved away from Windows Server NT, but they still have other applications running on older OS's.  States Matt Slipher, "We do have what I would call a lot of legacy systems.  A lot are running [Windows Server] 2003.  To give an example, some of our database servers run [Windows Server] 2003, and some of our applications servers run [Windows Server] 2000."

Thanks to virtualization all of those systems are running side by side now, as separate VM's on coexisting on the same servers, with little unused resources.  The architecture has also been commonized, reducing administration workload.  Engineers now are being moved from IT administration tasks to deploying new applications on the floor and other plant improvements.  The entire transition to the new architecture took only 12 months.

For other companies considering virtualization, but unsure of the costs and benefits, Matt Slipher suggests, "Make your own judgement.  Get your tools and test them.  We got [competitive offerings] and tested them... [For us] Hyper-V was less of a learning curve."

Update 1 (Aug. 21, 10:20 a.m.)

Based on user feedback, I got back in touch with Nissan to get a few more details.  The company is going with EMC for their SAN and backup hardware.  Their SAN uses 2 mirrored EMC CLARiiON 240s.  The CLARiiON 240 allows for easy scaling up to 231 TB of storage.

For backup, the plants are using an on-site EMC DL210 virtual tape library with EMC's Networker backup software.  The DL210, was among the first virtual tape libraries to use SATA drives to cut costs.  It launched in 2006 with a retail price of $50,000 at launch and has 4-24 TB of space. 

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