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Hospital system installs Nutanix storage nodes for VDI rollout

St. Luke's Health System uses Nutanix hyper-convergence nodes to distribute 2.4 PB of shared storage across its growing network of facilities.

St. Luke's Health System is implementing Nutanix Virtual Computing Platform nodes to virtualize storage at more than 30 ancillary healthcare facilities.

The healthcare network, based in Boise, Idaho, traditionally an EMC shop, switched to the Nutanix hyper-converged platform in October 2013 to deploy virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI). The Nutanix Virtual Computing Platform combines computing, networking, storage and virtualization resources inside a single box.

St. Luke's installed eight Nutanix storage nodes that are evenly divided between active-active data centers in Boise and Twin Falls, Idaho. The cluster supports 1,200 business and clinical applications.

The VDI project is also on a fast track. In July 2014, St. Luke's added 32 regional clinics to its network and needed to integrate two electronic medical records systems and other storage by Oct. 1. The facilities are scattered across rural southern Idaho and connect to the Nutanix cluster via a wide area network.

Installing Nutanix enables St. Luke's to distribute 2.4 PB of centralized storage, said Infrastructure and Operations Director Brett Taylor.

"We had to securely deliver all of St. Luke's services, plus two new EMR systems, on day one," he said. "We also had to have high availability (HA) from day one. To do an integration process at that speed was disruptive, but our infrastructure was not a barrier. Having the Nutanix storage in place at that time turned out to be a major win for us."

VDI started with Windows XP replacement

St. Luke's EMC storage is nearing end of life. The health system deploys an EMC VMAX SAN, EMC VNX and Isilon NAS boxes and Data Domain backup and deduplication.

St. Luke's initially rolled out virtual desktops to 3,000 users to support an upgrade to the Microsoft Windows 7 platform. Taylor said the shift to hyper-convergence stemmed from a need to stabilize its environment and limit storage complexity.

"We have too many applications to support," he said. "We've had exponential growth through acquisitions, but we haven't rationalized all the apps we acquired. We focused on making our environment stable and sustainable. I wanted to make it so our storage engineers don't need to be at the center of everything during a recovery," Taylor said.

The Nutanix Virtual Computing Platform places a tier of solid-state drives in front of SATA drives. The vendor also developed the Nutanix Distributed File System (NDFS) for protecting data in flight. NDFS makes sure all nodes in a Nutanix cluster are consistent before committing transactions to a database.

St. Luke's recently experienced an outage caused at the Twin Falls data center. Recovery of legacy storage took about 12 hours, Taylor said, but the Nutanix storage system failed over the data with minimum downtime.

"We actually had to call Nutanix to validate that the nodes were working because they just came back up. It ensured that all the transactions were valid at the point writes were being committed. It's almost like a two-phase commit process," Taylor said.

Comparative cost savings, scalability

Taylor said Nutanix has yielded about $1 million in savings during the first year compared to legacy storage systems. That figure includes improved productivity of care providers and reduced maintenance and hardware costs.

The Nutanix platform added support for Microsoft Hyper-V hypervisor in 2013. Taylor expects additional savings by phasing out its VMware environment.

"We are a big VMware shop, and Nutanix plays really well with VMware," Taylor said, "but we don't see a tremendous advantage of using VMware. It's almost like we're paying a VMware tax. Our plan is to migrate our VDI to the Hyper-V platform. We've chosen Microsoft Azure and Office 365 for our cloud strategy."

Beginning in May, the healthcare system plans to "minimally double" the number of Nutanix storage nodes to support inpatient pharmacy application workloads and to replace desktop PCs with thin clients at hospitals and clinics.

"We're also working with Nutanix [to design] an architecture that will allow us to place Nutanix platforms at all our rural sites for replication for our HA environment," Taylor said. "We're also thinking about putting VDI on-site in case there is a remote failure of our network."

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