Jan 24 2020

Digital Transformation Starts in the Data Center

The cloud isn’t for everyone. For some businesses, on-premises infrastructure upgrades simplify management, accommodate growth and improve the end-user experience.

When it came time for the State Bar of Wisconsin to replace infrastructure at its two data centers, officials didn’t merely replicate the performance of their existing solutions with newer hardware.

The organization needed a solution that would be able to organically scale as needs increased, and officials also wanted to improve performance for end users. The State Bar opted for VMware vSAN supported by HPE ProLiant DL380 Gen10 servers — first upgrading a colocation site that hosts the organization’s website and some other production workloads, and (a year later) upgrading its primary data center, which houses its customer relationship management tool.

Bill Kummer, IT manager for the State Bar of Wisconsin, says that users noticed “night and day” differences in application performance after the upgrades.

“It wasn’t just a statistical improvement,” Kummer says. “It was noticed by end users. There were people wondering what had changed, because things were so much faster. When you try to explain it to them, they get that glassy look. But they were still happy with the performance.”

Data center refresh cycles represent an opportunity not just to stay ahead of maintenance, support and compatibility issues, but also to transform the business. Greg Schulz, senior analyst at Server StorageIO, notes that organizations can achieve significant improvements by eschewing an approach that focuses solely on costs and instead attempting to balance price and performance. “One approach is just maintaining the status quo,” he says. “The other variation is, ‘Let’s support growth, boost productivity, reduce latency, enhance quality-of-service and improve resiliency.’”

Due to the pace at which technology improves, Schulz notes, organizations can often achieve significant benefits simply by keeping their infrastructure budgets level (relative to their size), rather than trying to trim costs for each new refresh. “You can cut costs and get the same capabilities you already had for less money, and say ‘I’ll be the big hero,’” Schulz says. “Or you can say, ‘We’ll spend the same amount we did the last time, and we’ll get new capabilities, turn on new features, have better reliability and do it all within the same footprint.’”

Upgrade Existing Infrastructure Instead of Replacing It 

The State Bar of Wisconsin opted to implement VMware vSAN at a time when the organization was close to running out of space on its existing storage infrastructure, meaning officials needed to not only replace what they had, but also choose new infrastructure that would accommodate anticipated growth in data. Kummer was intrigued by the simplicity and scalability of hyperconverged infrastructure (HCI), but he was also concerned that the model might force the organization to spend money on additional processing power and licensing costs when it came time to scale up its storage. By opting for the HPE ProLiant servers (rather than HCI-specific nodes) to support its vSAN, the organization is able to expand storage as needed simply by buying additional drives, without having to worry about new licensing costs. 

The State Bar used a hybrid vSAN at its colocation site. But at its primary site a year later, it was able to take advantage of falling prices to deploy an all-flash infrastructure. “At our primary location, we have double the storage as at the colocation facility for the same costs,” notes Kummer.

In an effort to always offer best in class technology, officials at South Carolina Federal Credit Union were looking to improve upon their existing infrastructure through an ongoing network upgrade, rather than to merely mimic their current environment. The upgrade, which is expected to be complete this summer, includes Arista 7280R2, 7050X3 and 720XP series switches, along with Mojo Networks Arista C-250 8x8 Tri Radio 802.11ax Wi-Fi access points. “Our current infrastructure is aging, and we were looking for the best speeds and the best technologies, as well as most affordable pricing,” says Shaun Davis, director of IT infrastructure and telecommunications. 

The upgrade from 10-gigabit to 25-gigabit networking equipment will spark an improvement in the performance of data-intensive applications such as video, Davis hopes. At the same time, Arista’s CloudVision management portal was an important part of the credit union’s reasoning for choosing its infrastructure technology. 

“You only need one set of commands for the core, access, edge and cloud layers,” Davis notes. “The management console allows you to do a lot of analysis and will allow us to manage all of our switches in one pane of glass, as opposed to having to log in to each switch locally.” That kind of simplicity is vital for a lean IT team. “One benefit of the upgrade will be reducing the amount of work for our IT team,” Davis says. “We’re hoping we won’t have as many nights and weekends for updates.”

DISCOVER: How the State Bar of Wisconsin improved application performance and scalability while keeping costs in check.

On-Premises Infrastructure Must Be Maintained

Much of the conversation about IT innovation in recent years has centered on the public cloud. But data center infrastructure remains vitally important for most organizations — especially those that have determined the public cloud isn’t a good fit due to regulatory, cost or other concerns. “As a financial institution that is heavily regulated, we’re a bit cloud-averse,” Davis says. “We keep everything that we deem to be member-sensitive information in our own data center. We don’t use a lot of public cloud, so if we’re going to innovate, we’re doing it in-house.” 

New Belgium Brewing Company, based in Fort Collins, Colo., pulled back from the public cloud in 2018, opting to run business-critical workloads on Dell EMC VxRail hyperconverged infrastructure at its Denver data center. Travis Morrison, director of IT, says the decision was motivated in part by cost, but even more so by the desire for increased control and simplified management.

“Our ability to manage, monitor and upgrade was somewhat limited and controlled by our vendor in the public cloud,” Morrison says. “With VxRail, we’re able to monitor down to disk, compute and network very easily. And when we need to do upgrades, we know that the firmware has been tested for the VMware version that’s on the hardware. We know we already have a fully vetted and tested solution. It’s made lifecycle management easy to do remotely.”

The move also led to performance improvements and improved troubleshooting, Morrison says: “I wouldn’t say we had significant outages in the public cloud. But when we had performance issues that may have slowed those applications, it sometimes took a day or more to coordinate various parties and make the necessary handoffs to find the problem. Now, we’ve drastically reduced our troubleshooting time.”

MORE FROM BIZTECH: Learn more about how VMware vSAN can help business.

Get the Power For Constant Improvement

New Belgium plans to roll out VxRail across its other data centers in the coming years. “The return on investment on our original deployment was less than a year, and we felt we had the flexibility to scale as needed,” Morrison notes.

As organizations refresh their data centers, Schulz advises them to opt for the best infrastructure that their budgets allow to accommodate growth and support the business. “Get as much flash as you can afford,” he says. “Get as many fast networking ports, whether they’re 10 gigabit or 25 gigabit, as you can afford. Get as many cores in your servers as you can afford. They’ll pay for themselves over time.”

“You have to continuously improve your IT environment,” Davis says. “It’s not like data is shrinking. We’re always going to have more data, we’re always going to have to be faster, and people are always going to be anticipating faster response times. Even if something works now, you’re going to be bottlenecking yourself in a few years if you don’t enhance your infrastructure.”

BizTechMagazine