VAR Implements Cisco UCS For Non-Profit Health System

A five-hospital non-profit health system that worked with its solution provider to implement the Cisco UCS platform found it to be not only a cost-effective solution but one which easily expanded to meet changing requirements.

Moses Cone Health System, Greensboro, N.C., signed on with Cisco solution provider Varrow to implement UCS when it had a short 90-day window to prepare new hardware on which to base a new clinical data repository project.

And for Varrow, it was an opportunity to learn the insides and outsides of UCS, a move which has since lead to several new opportunities, said Mark McDaniel, health-care account manager for the Greensboro, N.C.-based solution provider.

Cisco UCS, or Unified Computing System, combines networking, blade servers, storage, core switching, routing, security, and voice over IP (VoIP) into a single architecture.

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Moses Cone's and Varrow's introduction to UCS started back in the Summer of 2009 when the health-care organization decided to update its clinical data repository software.

Michael Heil, technology infrastructure manager of Moses Cone, said the software required his company install 16 new VMware EXS host servers, a requirement that, if done with traditional 2U servers, would fill an entire data center rack and use a lot of Fibre Channel and Ethernet ports.

The choice initially seemed to be between traditional server and I/O technology or some converged infrastructure offering based on Cisco's Nexus 5000 networking switch, which Heil said worked well in VMware environments.

A Cisco sales rep and Varrow were asked to do a Nexus 5000 presentation, which they did. But then the Cisco rep, almost as an afterthought, brought up Cisco UCS as an alternative.

"I told the rep I didn't want to spend too much time talking about USC, but he said, 'Let me tell you one thing,'" Heil said.

That one thing turned out to be an analogy comparing Cisco UCS to the ease in managing capacity in virtualized storage environments, and that got Heil's attention.

That September, Heil attended the VMworld conference in San Francisco, where he said Cisco UCS, because it had been just introduced, was in evidence throughout the show.

"The entire show was run on UCS," he said. "They also had a roundtable with early users. I saw it was already production-ready. So I went back to Varrow, our VMware partner for almost two years, and talked to them about UCS."

The day he got back from VMworld, Heil said his company's top executives told him they planned to sign the new software contract on September 30, and that the new hardware would have to be ready to go within 60 days. However, with a bit of arguing, Heil said he got a 90 day window.

Varrow, a long-time partner of Cisco for data center implementations, was originally skeptical about UCS, McDaniel said. However, after helping Heil get involved in the UCS roundtable at VMworld and getting the technology in its own lab to test, McDaniel said Varrow was hooked. "We don't think there's anything else like it," he said.

Next: Implementing And Building On UCS

The implementation of Cisco was handled by Cisco Advanced Services, which at the time led most of the early implementations of the technology as a way to get it to customers quickly while also training its channel partners.

Varrow had two engineers rotating on site at Moses Cone during the three-week implementation period, a move which has since paid off in further sales of Cisco UCS technology in other clients, McDaniel said.

Since the implementation, Varrow has worked closely with Moses Cone to expand on the new infrastructure.

The original project started out with two chasses and 16 server blades. However, it currently stands at five chasses and 32 blades, thanks to help from Varrow.

Varrow in November of 2010 started a project to replace a couple of different EMC Clariion arrays with a new EMC Symmetrix VMAX enterprise-class storage array. Once that implementation is finished, which is expected sometime in February, the VMAX will be the primary storage array and a Clariion CX380 will be repurposed for use as part of a disaster recovery system, McDaniel said.

Varrow has also worked with Moses Cone to implement a new emergency medical room application from Epic Systems, Verona, Wisc., on the UCS architecture. Varrow said Moses Cone ordered a UCS blade to send to Epic in order to get the blade certified with its software, McDaniel said.

Varrow also recently used the UCS to upgrade Moses Cone's Windows Active Directory, he said.

Cisco UCS is working beyond expectations, Heil said. For instance, adding a new 2U server for VMware in the past meant sending it to two different people who needed three days minimum to get it ready.

"One of my newest employees, who started four months ago, can use pre-built server configurations and pre-zone storage on our SAN," he said. "So when we get a new blade, my server guy can do it himself in two to three hours. And that is one of my newer employees. So I am seeing efficiencies like that. My server guy doesn't need to know so much about storage and networking because my storage guys already pre-built the storage for UCS."

Varrow has been an excellent partner throughout the Cisco UCS implementation, Heil said.

"When we determined that UCS was best for us, Varrow also decided it is best for their other customers," he said. "During the implementation, Varrow had at least one engineer here at all times. They love the technology, and they have a healthy enthusiasm for UCS."