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Hyper-converged technologies give higher-ed IT teams a lift

Higher-education IT budgets often pale in comparison to enterprises, so hyper-converged technology can stretch resources while meeting demands.

Higher-education IT needs often mirror those of enterprises, yet they have considerably smaller budgets and staffing...

numbers with which to work. Those requirements and budget constraints make hyper-converged technologies a fit for college and university IT teams looking to save money and management time by moving critical applications off separate tiers of networked storage, servers and virtualization.

"At education, we're always short on money," said Mariusz Nowak, director of infrastructure services at Oakland University in Auburn Hills, Mich. "We're always looking at how we're spending this dollar, how we're building infrastructure and how we invest our money."

Here is a look at how hyper-converged technology infrastructure (HCI) met higher-education IT requirements better than traditional three-tier architectures. Besides pricing, features such as stretch clustering and the ability to work at multiple sites help meet campus IT needs.

Oakland University

In 2016, Oakland University began switching from NetApp FAS storage to VMware vSAN HCI software running on Dell PowerEdge R730xd servers in a Ready Node configuration to stretch its storage budget. Nowak said his university spent $100,000 per year for support alone for his NetApp FAS that it used as primary storage for its VMware workload.

"It's hard to sustain that for a long period," he said. "Every five years, you have to shuffle another half-million dollars to replace your storage.

"With vSAN, you upgrade block by block. If you need more resources, you toss in a couple of extra nodes and you're good to go. You don't have to spend $100,000 in one shot and do some crazy heavy lifting, paying for support to help you with a new version of Ontap."

Nowak said he started following vSAN in 2013, but waited for the product to mature with new features. The clinchers were support for encryption, because Oakland has Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act and Payment Card Industry data that requires encrypting and stretch clustering to span two data centers on campus.

"This is what we're looking for with our lean infrastructure," he said. "A simple solution, one vendor, one source of support."

Nowak said he upgraded to vSAN 6.6 soon after it came out in early 2017, and he began putting his production workload on it for around 400 virtual machines. "By the end of the year, my wish list is to move all workloads from NetApp to vSAN," he said. Oakland University started with an eight-node, all-flash, hyper-converged cluster.

Each node has 40 CPU cores and more than 10 TB of storage. The university currently has 232 TB on the eight-node cluster. Nowak said each node cost around $40,000.

Like most businesses, higher-education IT needs go beyond primary storage. Nowak said he is looking to eliminate tape for backup and disaster recovery. He said he plans to replace tape with caching gateways to move data to Amazon Web Services, as well as older Dell EMC Compellent storage arrays. He said backup data will go first to AWS Simple Storage Service and archived to AWS Glacier as it ages.

Ventura County Community College District

Price also played a big part in prompting Ventura County Community College District (VCCCD) to switch to hyper-converged technologies in 2014, according to Aaron Kay, VCCCD's systems administrator. The Los Angeles-area college system switched to HCI in 2014 when both its storage and server infrastructure were due for refreshes. VCCCD moved from Tegile Fibre Channel SANs and Dell blade servers to vSAN for tier-one storage.

"We didn't want separate storage anymore," Kay said. "The point was to simplify the equipment in the racks and the administration while providing the flexibility for upgrades and fine-tuning storage policies, rather than having a dedicated and specially trained [storage] staff."

He said VCCCD evaluated early HCI vendors Nutanix and SimpliVity -- now part of Hewlett Packard Enterprise -- as well as vSAN. Kay and Dave Fuhrmann, VCCCD's associate vice chancellor of information technology, said they leaned toward Nutanix until sticker shock scared them off.

"Nutanix was price-prohibitive for a school," Fuhrmann said. "I know large corporations like to use Nutanix, but when servers cost $100,000 a piece, it's a little rich for a community college."

He said his team built four vSAN clusters on Dell servers for $350,000. He said Nutanix had all the enterprise features he needed, including stretch clustering -- which vSAN still lacked -- but the school spent about one-quarter as much on vSAN as Nutanix would cost.

We were sensitive to staying within a budget. We like seeing new stuff, but we also like seeing low prices.
Dave Fuhrmannassociate vice chancellor of information technology, VCCCD

"We were sensitive to staying within a budget," he said. "We like seeing new stuff, but we also like seeing low prices."

VCCCD begin installing vSAN 5.5 on campus and district offices in late 2014 and put it into production in 2015. It currently has four-node clusters at three campus sites, a five-node cluster in its main data center and a three-node cluster for disaster recovery. All the systems are hybrid, with solid-state drives for cache and disk for capacity. The vSAN implementations replaced all shared storage systems. Kay said email is its most critical application.

Most of the clusters are vSAN 6.0 now, with plans to upgrade to version 6.6 later in late 2017 or early 2018. Kay said besides cost savings, the HCI clusters are simpler to manage the FC SANs.

"This makes storage something you just take care of, not something you have to do," he said of hyper-converged technologies. "We can provide services for students and not only service and support for our servers. We've shifted our time to where we want to spend it versus where we need to spend it, which was on storage."

Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania

For the Wharton School, hyper-convergence is a way station between a traditional three-tier architecture and moving the Philadelphia-based college's entire data center to AWS. Matthew Frew, Wharton School's IT director, said his school implemented Dell EMC XC hyper-converged appliances running Nutanix software in mid-2016. Wharton's long-term IT strategy is to move everything into the AWS public cloud by 2020. Until then, Frew said hyper-converged technologies simplify IT responsibilities.

Frew said Wharton has moved most of its VMware workload off Dell EqualLogic storage arrays onto seven XC hybrid flash nodes. He said management of HCI is much simpler than with a SAN, with upgrades now possible during regular business hours.

Frew pointed to a recent hypervisor upgrade that he said took three hours to complete, including only a half hour of staff time and "no service disruption whatsoever."

"We're able to give [IT] people their time back," he said. "It allows us to dedicate more time to refreshing services we're already running, getting them up to date. And we have more time to deploy more new services," such as a recent Dropbox implementation that may replace the department's file server.

"We had a Fibre Channel SAN when I first came here," he added. "That performed better, but it was much more complicated. It was much easier to erroneously cause harm to data that you weren't expecting to."

Like the VCCCD IT team, Frew said he found the first price quote for the Nutanix system too high for his budget. "But after pushing back on Dell -- there's a huge gulf here; it doesn't seem like this is a software cost, it seems like there's something else there -- Dell did come down quite a bit on the price," he said. "I don't know if Dell came down or Nutanix came down, or where the chips lie there."

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