Which is better, a well-defined, preconfigured infrastructure offering like VCE's Vblock, a data-center-in-a box that arrives at the loading dock already racked and stacked, or a flexible converged infrastructure offering that can be designed to specific requirements as long as the loading dock has room for 300 boxes of parts?
The answer: It depends.
When it comes to converged infrastructure, where IT managers try to simplify their data centers with tightly integrated server, storage, networking, and virtualization solutions to better manage fast-growing data and compute requirements, there just is no single, one-size-fits-all way to do it. The following is a look at various customers, some who decided that fully configured Vblocks from VCE were the way to go, some who embraced the FlexPod reference architecture from NetApp and Cisco, and some who went the V plus C plus E route -- eschewing the fully integrated Vblock concept entirely -- and put the products together themselves or with the help of a partner.
VBLOCK FAST ALL AROUND
Until early 2011, the Mississippi Community College Board, which coordinates services including wireless networking, Internet access, and Domain Name System (DNS) for all 15 community colleges in the state of Mississippi, had a data center like most.
It was virtualized, said Ray Smith, assistant executive director for technology. "But need a new app? Buy a new file server," Smith said. "We had 25 to 30 boxes. But our data center was not designed for that. Heat was a big issue."
Something had to change, and the organization initially looked at replacing servers with blade technology, Smith said. However, it was a bit scared of making a significant change to its architecture. "History is full of vendors who partner and then break up with you," he said.
One of the alternatives the board considered was Cisco UCS servers because of their large memory capacities, Smith said. He also heard of the relationship Cisco had through VCE with EMC and VMware, the latter of which provided the board's virtualization technology.
VCE surprised Smith from the start with speed. "My first email to VCE was answered in 10 minutes," he said. "And any question to VCE I get answered within 15 minutes any time of the day."
One of VCE's responses was to put the board in touch with a local solution provider, Ridgeland, Miss.-based Venture Technologies. And that is what sealed the deal, Smith said. "Venture Technologies had a portable Vblock they brought out," he said.
That demonstration showed the joys of not assembling a virtualized IT infrastructure from components, Smith said.
"If we bring in our own equipment, or have an external infrastructure, we'd get the same cabling mess I have now," he said. "With Vblock, we get up to 40 GBs per second with very little cabling. Believe it or not, it's a big deal to open the back and actually see the equipment, and not the cables. Also, the 'finger pointing' thing -- it's nice to not have to deal with it."
Smith also liked how, with a Vblock, redundancy was not an option. "It's defined," he said. "Everything has redundant parts. If there's any problem, you're notified, and the manufacturer is notified. In education, you get used to working with very little. It's hard to talk about purchasing redundant systems. With Vblock, that's not an issue. That's the way it comes."
The Mississippi Community College Board's Vblock is currently used primarily to run DNS and the databases used by the 15 member colleges, Smith said. It provides a wide range of services for the colleges, including registration, and is also slated to play a big part in longitudinal data systems, a federal program for tracking students from when they enter kindergarten through to their first jobs, he said.
The board also hosts private clouds for member campuses on its Vblock. "They have their own data centers," Smith said. "But sometimes they need something fast, or don't have the money to do it. I can create VMs in five minutes, and they're ready to go."
Going with the Vblock was a gamble, Smith said. "And so far, it's paid off," he said. "I hope this venture continues. The support is seamless. So I've been happy with the decisions I've made."
Smith is also happy with the continued performance of VCE as a company. "I have a small staff," he said. "With VCE, I get high-level EMC, Cisco, and VMware experts on the phone when needed."
SAVED IN THE NICK OF TIME WITH FLEXPOD
In the summer of 2010, Carmel, Ind.-based Seven Corners was challenged by an application platform dating from the mid-1990s on the one server still able to handle it and the 13 TB of associated non-normalized data.
Not only was the system straining to keep up the annual double-digit data growth Seven Corners had experienced for 17 years, it was costing $133,000 per month in labor and lost labor, said George Reed, CIO.
Seven Corners, which provides a variety of services to the insurance industry, was also under pressure from an increase in services resulting from federal government requirements, he said.
As a result, Seven Corners in August 2010 worked with Netech, a Grand Rapids, Mich.-based solution provider, to implement a NetApp FAS 3104 storage array. Netech also suggested implementing Cisco UCS server and networking technology and VMware virtualization technology as a way to virtualize Seven Corners' application, he said.
The decision was made just in time. "We gave them three months," Reed said. "It took them two months and 20 days to implement. The day after we migrated the application, our last [legacy] server blue-screened."
When the new system went live, Reed did not tell his co-workers immediately. "That day, one of the owners came and said there was a problem," he said. "Normally, the owner said, it takes 45 minutes to print a report. 'Now it prints before I take my hand off the mouse,' he said."
Netech impressed Seven Corners with its ability to virtualize its old application, Reed said. "They did so well, our business grew, increasing the need for more storage," he said. "In August of 2011, I called Netech with a [purchase order] at 11:00. By 4:00, Netech installed and provisioned 12 TB. And we were getting a 60 percent data reduction from deduplication."
Seven Corners' FlexPod infrastructure continues to expand. Last fall, the company acquired a half-terabyte of Flash-based cache, which Reed said cuts the time needed to run scripts significantly.
Before implementing the cache, it took eight hours to run an analysis of Seven Corners' database, which included running through 4.5 million records looking for duplicate county, state, and ZIP code combinations, Reed said.
"After, it took 20 minutes," he said. "My project manager handed me tables showing 99.9 percent relevant data. I haven't seen him so happy since his granddaughter was born."
Sever Corners' FlexPod took four days to assemble on-site, leaving what Reed called "mounds of cardboard" in the loading area when finished. Even so, he said, having it assembled and provisioned on-site was a big plus. "My server room staff got a deeper knowledge of what they were doing," he said. "Packaging on a pallet and shipping it complete [like a Vblock] is a neat idea, but then you need more time to do the training."
Seven Corners is not done with its FlexPod. Reed said his organization is getting ready to upgrade the on-site storage to a FAS 3240, and will install a FAS 3270 off-site. "The company is growing so fast we need to move off-site for disaster recovery," he said.
NO DOWNTIME: LOVING THE VBLOCK LIFE
Rob Dickson, director of technology at the Andover Public Schools, Andover, Kansas, loves his two Vblock 300s.
His love stems not from the fact 90 percent of Andover Public Schools' servers are virtualized on them, or that they are hosting 200 virtual desktops, or even that they provide VoIP service for 900 users.
What Dickson really loves is that he has not had a single downtime issue, and that the system has never been rebooted in the nearly 300 days since it was installed.
"My goal is to do no updates until it has been running 365 days without a downtime," he said. "Then I'll take a screenshot showing no downtime, and use it in my report to the board at our retreat this summer."
Things were not looking so good in 2009 and 2010. Back then, Andover Public Schools' IT requirements were met with a 12 x 12-foot data center room that housed 80 to 90 heavily virtualized physical servers sitting in five racks and on several tables, all being cooled by three air conditioners.
Lost funding due to the economic downturn led to a 30 percent reduction in its IT staff, forcing the district to increase the virtualization of its operations to get more efficiency. However, its data center setup limited its ability to add new services, and there was no money to build a larger data center. A traditional data center refresh with beefier servers and larger SANs, was considered, but a change in support staff made that a difficult option, Dickson said.
Working with Kansas City-based solution provider Alexander Open Systems, the district in late 2010 took a long look at the possibility of working with VCE's Vblock. Dickson said it was a logical first choice because the company already had EMC storage and was a Cisco phone customer.
Dickson said implementation of Andover Public Schools' Vblocks was incredibly smooth. His team early last July physically moved all the servers and other equipment from the data center room to an adjacent room to prepare space for the Vblocks, and during the second week of the month, five VCE engineers showed up for the installation.
"By Friday, I had migrated the entire infrastructure to the Vblocks," he said. "We migrated our phone system, including all 900 phones, from a physical infrastructure to virtual in Vblock. Everything was working before the engineers left on Friday. And on Monday morning, my users didn't see anything different."
The experience of having VCE engineers on-site with the solution provider was a big plus for Dickson and his team.
"When we had an issue with the UIM, an EMC engineer on-site called his company and had it resolved in a couple of hours," he said. We had a VCE project manager on-site dotting every 'i' and crossing every 't.'"
That project manager even pulled the plug on the Vblocks to make sure the failover worked before migrating them to production, Dickson said. "That's the level of support you can't get with any other solution," he said. "It's VCE's solution. They can't blame anyone else for anything."
The Andover Public Schools' IT infrastructure acquired its two Vblock 300s on a three-year lease at the end of which it will look at growing the system to do a districtwide virtual desktop implementation, Dickson said. It is also looking at adding some new VMware applications like the Octopus file sharing system and AppBlast, which wraps a Windows application in HTML so it can be run on an iPad.
The district's 144-square-foot data center room now has plenty of extra room. "We use the extra space for people to come in and look at the Vblock," Dickson said. "You can walk around it. We could never do that before."
MANAGING VERY WILL NOW WITH FLEXPOD
The bursting of the recent housing bubble nearly broke the back of the Walz Group's data center, but it survived with FlexPod's help.
The Walz Group, based in Temecula, Calif., had been providing critical document management and regulatory help to legal, health-care, and state and local government customers for 25 years, but in 2006 found its IT infrastructure limiting its growth and scalability in the face of a surge in foreclosures, said Bart Falzarano, chief information security officer.
"Starting in 2006, we've seen exponential demands on storage," he said. "There are also a lot of changes because of new financial regulations. We need to account for all that data."
By 2009, the company had looked at technologies from a number of vendors, including VCE's Vblock. However, Falzarano said, his team was sold on the FlexPod infrastructure in part because of its promise of large-scale virtualization, centralized management, and ease in scaling capacity.
Falzarano also said that running Microsoft SQL in virtualized environments was easier on the FlexPod, and that the FlexPod has a better control panel than the Vblock.
Cisco and NetApp engineers were on-site when the FlexPod components arrived, and had the system up and running in only four days. "It was very impressive," Falzarano said. "Even the cabling was reduced significantly. We got centralized management, even on the Fabric. We used to have experts on systems, storage, and networking on staff. Now we have only two people, including me, managing the system."
San Diego-based solution provider Technology Integration Group helped the Walz Group with due diligence during the project, and followed up with virtualization services, Falzarano said.
That help was instrumental when it came time to integrate Microsoft SQL. "FlexPod significantly increased our virtualization efficiencies," he said. "The one thing we couldn't fully virtualize was Microsoft SQL. When we virtualized it, we found the performance was degraded. We eventually built SQL on a bare metal Cisco UCS server, and we imagined how much better the performance would be."
Falzarano and his team were originally concerned about support issues and response times with FlexPod, which at the time was a new technology. "Since then, we've seen upgrades done without downtime and without support," he said. "Issues get taken care of without finger pointing."
As a result, one person can now manage over 50 different systems via the FlexPod's unified management system instead of a maximum of 15 or 16 servers per full-time equivalent.
The Walz Group is currently adding cloud management and automation software from Cloupia to its FlexPod to manage the physical, virtual, and cloud portions through a single console, Falzarano said. "It would let us see what workloads would be best to move to a private cloud or to a public cloud, and give the ability to burst workloads out to a cloud and back," he said.
Rearchitecting the Walz Group's infrastructure with FlexPod has been quite the journey, Falzarano said. "In the past, we had decentralized storage and management," he said. "We're now past that. Now when we have clients with problems managing their scalability, we send them APIs to leverage our infrastructure. This has become a new business enabler for us."
A VBLOCK MISS?
Not all Vblock-related implementations have turned out fruitfully, and their details, naturally, aren't much publicized.
One of the more high-profile Vblock-related misses was with Harris Corp., the Melbourne, Fla.-based federal government and commercial integrator and maker of wireless equipment, antennas and electronic systems.
Harris used multiple Vblocks in a data center based in Harrisonburg, Va., for an operation in its Integrated Network Solutions business that sold remote cloud hosting solutions to federal government customers. But Harris announced on Feb. 27 that the operation, known as Cyber Integrated Solutions, would be shut down, and that the data center would be sold.
In a statement at the time, Harris said "that although demand continues for cybersecurity and cloud-enabled solutions, its government and commercial customers currently prefer hosting mission-critical information on their own premises rather than remotely," and that it expected to take an after-tax charge of $70 million to $80 million during its fiscal 2012 as a result of the shutdown.
A spokesperson for Harris declined comment to CRN on whether the data center had been sold, whether Harris was pleased with its Vblock implementations and why Harris originally selected Vblock for the Cyber Integrated Solutions operation.
A VCE insider, however, said the Harris deal was often mentioned internally by VCE as a successful case study.
Vblock functionality was not believed to be a direct factor in Harris' shut-down decision. "But wouldn't Harris have been able to judge the level of that customer demand before they stood the thing up?" the VCE insider said.
Harris bought the 140,000-square-foot facility in 2010, and according to the IT blog Data Center Knowledge, spent about $200 million on it.
According to a transcript of Harris' Jan. 31 second-quarter earnings call, Harris CEO William Brown said Harris lost a combined $8 million from its CIS and Healthcare Solutions during the quarter. In Harris' third-quarter earnings call on May 1, Brown said Harris had "resolved significant financial drag from the cyber hosting facility and the process to divest the assets is progressing quickly."
PUBLISHED OCT. 18, 2012