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Scale Computing HC3 solves school district's virtualization problems

Find out how a California school district was able to simplify management in its VMware environment while keeping costs low with converged storage.

When California-based Standard School District found that its aging hardware could no longer support its VMware environment, choosing a Scale Computing HC3 "storage in a box" was a simple solution.

The Bakersfield school district, which is composed of four schools and serves close to 3,000 students, had implemented VMware ESXi 4.0 about two years ago. The district found not too long after deployment that to continue using the virtualization platform, it would have to deploy either a SAN or NAS on top of its existing SAS-based Proliant DL380 G4. "Most of the issues were due to the age of the hardware we had to run it on because it didn't support 64-bit guest operating systems," said Jefferson Davis, technology and information systems manager at the school district.

The free version of VMware that the school had implemented didn't have high availability, which would require dedicated standby hardware and software. But adding a SAN or NAS would have complicated the environment further. "Our current SAN [didn't] have the performance to do some of the things we needed it to do, so we ended up having to leverage local storage on the ESXi servers to have acceptable performance, as opposed to mounting an iSCSI volume. Rather than having one or two hosts, we had to have three."

Additionally, upgrading to a version of VMware with high availability would bring the added price of licensing on top of the hardware's, a cost Standard School District couldn't afford. Without taking action, they were only able to virtualize about 25% of their environment.

It wasn't until three months ago that Standard School District successfully implemented Scale Computing's HC3 platform, a converged storage and virtualization system that combines compute and capacity.

With a staff of just three and a limited budget, the IT department didn't have many solutions to choose from that would both be affordable and reduce complexity. An EMC VNXe 3550 M3, HP LeftHand and NetApp products were in the running, but the prices of all of them were far more than the school district's budget. "By the time I factored everything in, I was looking at close to or [more than] $100,000," Davis said.

Eventually, the district beta-tested Scale Computing HC3. Davis said the price and simplicity couldn't be passed up. At roughly one-third the cost of the other systems it was considering, Standard School District purchased three nodes that contain 12 2 terabyte (TB) SATA drives (four per node) running on a Linux operating system. "I really liked that they have abstracted storage and virtualization -- you don't have a whole bunch of separate pieces, and it's a lot more logical in a lot of ways. You don't need to have a whole bunch of different vendors to achieve the end result. It flattens the schema (the various numbers of components). And if you need to add resources, you just add another blade," Davis said. He also noted that the fact that the HC3 didn't require buying any additional dedicated hardware was a deciding factor.

The school district added a fourth node after the initial deployment. The system now supports eight VMs, a number Davis said will likely grow to 12 in the coming months. Compared with the old setup, the complexity and performance of the environment is a great improvement, according to Davis. "It's pretty seamless -- you're managing virtualization and storage through a single pane of glass, so there's pretty much zero potential for interoperability issues between the two, [and] it's easily delegable -- it's pretty impressive," he said. "I'm kind of amazed, in a way, that nobody else has done anything else like that."

Capacity and scalability turned out to be notable deciding factors for the school district as well. "One of the driving reasons for doing this is if I'm low on horsepower or storage for VMs, I buy another node," Davis said. HC3 nodes can be purchased separately as needed, and after the school district added the fourth, it had the capacity for an additional 14.8 TB of data. David added that while he hasn't yet moved high-usage data, such as email and journaling, to the HC3 nodes, he expects the storage to have capacity enough for at least a few more years.

While performance and capacity aren't issues Davis faces any longer, he said he sees room for improvement in several areas. As an experienced manager, Davis said he is "used to running fairly close to the metal" and the management features pertaining to the cluster aren't as detailed as he would hope. He also added that he'd like to see the addition of virtual LAN support and native backup and restore, features that currently are not included in the HC3.

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