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This article is part of our Essential Guide: VMworld 2018 conference coverage

VSAN hyper-converged users offer buying, implementing advice

Users provide tips on going from three tiers to tears-free hyper-convergence using VMware vSAN software or other HCI architectures proliferating in the data center and beyond.

LAS VEGAS -- Today, VMware paints vSAN hyper-converged technology as a key piece of IT everywhere, from the data center to the cloud to the edge. But early vSAN customers remember when it was still a nascent concept and not fully proven.

As a customer panel at VMworld 2018, vSAN hyper-converged software users offered advice for buying and implementing what, in some cases, was still a suspect technology when they adopted it. The customers were split between using vSAN on integrated appliances, such as Dell EMC VxRail hardware, or buying on servers as vSAN Ready Nodes. Either way, they faced similar buying decisions and implementation challenges.

Here is some of the advice offered for going down the road of vSAN hyper-converged and hyper-converged infrastructure (HCI) in general.

Start small and prove its value

Several of the vSAN hyper-converged customers said it was difficult to gain support originally for moving from a traditional three-tier architecture to HCI. It helped to start with a specific use case to prove the technology and then grow from there.

William Dufrin, IT manager of client virtualization engineering and architecture at General Motors, said the early case was virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI).

"In our environment, change is kind of rough," Dufrin said. "We're a large organization, and it could be difficult to make changes like vSAN instead of traditional storage."

He said IT developers started using vSAN for VDI in 2014, "and in four years, we've seen a huge adoption rate inside the organization because of the values and the savings. It's been stable, and performance has been phenomenal."

Dufrin said General Motors now has around 10,000 virtual desktops running on 20 six-node clusters, with two fault domains for availability.

Mark Fournier, systems architect for the United States Senate Federal Credit Union in Alexandria, Va., said his bank started with vSAN Ready Nodes in remote branches. The HCI implementation came around the time USSFCU began virtualizing in 2014.

"Going to vSAN was a challenge against some of the traditional technology we had," Fournier said. "Even though we were virtualizing, we were still siloing off storage, compute and networking. To get into what seems to be the future, we upgraded our branches using vSAN Remote Office Branch Office licensing. That allowed us to implement hyper-converged architecture in our branches for a lot less money than we expected."

Fournier said the credit union put Ready Nodes on all-flash blade servers in three branches. He said a four-node all-flash implementation in one branch is so fast now that some of his organization's developers want to move workloads to the branch.

"With the new PowerEdge M7000 from Dell, options for onboard storage are more flexible, and [it] allows us to bring vSAN out of the branches and into the data center now that management sees the benefit we get out of it," Fournier said.

Think platform and relationships, and consider all options

The panelists said they did a lot of research before switching to HCI and picking a vendor. They evaluated products from leading HCI vendors, different offerings from the same vendor and compared HCI to traditional IT before making buying decisions.

Mariusz Nowak, director of infrastructure services at Oakland University in Rochester, Mich., said cost played a large role -- as is often the case with educational institutions.

"I was sick and tired of replacing entirely every traditional storage array every few years and begging for new money, hundreds of thousands of dollars," he said. "My boss, and everyone else, wasn't happy to have to spend tons of money."

Oakland University was a VMware customer since 2005, and Nowak said he looked at early versions of vSAN hyper-converged software, but felt it wasn't ready for the university. After VMware added more enterprise features, such as stretch clusters, deduplication and encryption, Oakland installed the HCI software in 2017. It now has 12 vSAN hosts, with 400 guest virtual machines and 350 TB of storage on vSAN Ready Nodes running on Dell EMC PowerEdge servers.

I was sick and tired of replacing entirely every traditional storage array every few years and begging for new money, hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Mariusz Nowakdirector of infrastructure services, Oakland University

"I choose Ready Nodes so I don't have extra overhead," Nowak said. "With VxRail, you have to pay more. With Ready Nodes, I can modify my hardware whenever I need, whether I need more capacity or more CPUs. Some HCI vendors will say, 'This is the cookie-cutter node that you have to buy.' We have more flexibility."

Alex Rodriguez, VDI engineer at Rent-A-Center, based in Plano, Texas, said his company did a proof of concept (POC) with Dell EMC VxRail, Nutanix and SimpliVity -- since acquired by Hewlett Packard Enterprise -- when evaluating HCI in 2016. He said price and vendor relationships also figured in the final decision.

"When we did a POC, Nutanix won out," he said. "But we saw a cost benefit with VxRail, and we decided to go in that direction because of our relationship with VMware. And each generation of this [vSAN] software has gotten a whole lot better. Performance is better and manageability is easy. You may find an application that's better for one stack or another, but overall we think VxRail is a better platform."

Divide and cluster

Several of the panelists suggested using clusters or stretch clusters with vSAN hyper-converged infrastructure to help separate workloads and provide availability.

Nowak said Oakland University installed 10 nodes in a stretched cluster across two campus data centers, with 10 Gigabit Ethernet uplinks to a witness site connecting them.

"For little cost, I have an active-active data center solution," he said. "If we lost one data center, I could run almost my entire workload on another site, with no disruption. I can technically lose one site and shift my workload to another site."

Rent-A-Center's Rodriguez set up a four-node cluster with management applications and a 12-node cluster for VDI and other applications after installing Dell EMC VxRail appliances in 2016.

"We wanted to make sure we could manage our environment," he said. "If we would've consolidated the management stack with the VDI stack and something happened, we would've lost control. Having segmentation gave us control."

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