November 21, 2023
Refreshing the Data Center
How one county prepared for its future through digital transformation.
For many organizations, digital transformation means moving applications to the cloud. But when one county government recently decided that it was time to transform its IT systems and services, it began by overhauling what it already had in its own data centers. Because the changes permeated its infrastructure, the county looked to CDW professional services to plan and execute the transformation.
“The timing was great to get all of that refreshed,” says Tory Davenport, a CDW consulting engineer specializing in network design and implementation. “What they had wasn’t giving them what they needed. It wasn’t just a matter of equipment. We did a complete redesign for the whole county.”
A sprawling, picturesque, rural jurisdiction spanning nearly 1,500 square miles and serving about 44,000 citizens, the county has two redundant data centers, 11 government facilities and 35 departments. The bulk of its infrastructure was a decade old when it approached CDW to explore a refresh.
County IT officials recognized that they had “aging technology” and needed updated network and data center infrastructure to boost employee productivity throughout the county (including remote workers) while simplifying IT management for its limited staff.
“The newer equipment and newer circuitry gave them a nice performance boost I don’t think they realized they could get,” Davenport says. “Nowadays, you can get a lot more out of a smaller package.”
The percentage of data center energy costs that state and local governments can save by adopting energy efficiency measures
Source: betterbuildingssolutioncenter.energy.gov, “State & Local Government Data Centers,” Aug. 11, 2023
Redesigning the Network for Performance
The county began planning its data center refresh in 2021. Residual supply chain issues stemming from the pandemic slowed some deliveries, but CDW was able to begin working on the upgrade in the second half of 2022, starting with a complete network overhaul.
“They had these older, large-chassis switches that aren’t designed the same way anymore,” Davenport says. “They were doing network segmentation for all their sites through the hardware, and it had really become too much.”
The county’s IT team was keen to reduce network complexity and worked with its local telco provider to establish dark fiber connections between its data centers and its various government buildings. The old data center switches were then replaced with a pair of Cisco Catalyst 9606R devices to aggregate connections from the county’s many sites.
“We did an entire WAN redesign,” Davenport says. “They had a legacy ring topology to connect their sites together that wasn’t really working for them. They weren’t getting true intersite redundancy, and because it was a shared ring, all of the sites were sharing bandwidth. There were times agencies would be pushing large files and it would degrade performance for everyone.”
For example, the county stores large computer-aided design files and mapping data in its data center that the public works department uses for planning and development. Downloading and uploading such data had begun to sap productivity.
“With the new switches and dark fiber, we redesigned their network from the Layer 2 ring to Layer 3 routed links, taking them from static routes to redundant dynamic routing across those links,” Davenport says. “All of the fiber from their sites comes into those Catalyst switches, which aggregate the data and isolate it from the core.”
Along with overhauling its data center switches, the county upgraded more than 60 Cisco network switches throughout its infrastructure. It’s now capable of up to 100 gigabits per second into its data center and across its core and has established 25Gbps for many offices (including public works) and 1Gbps at its most remote locations.
“This refresh gives them better reliability, better resiliency and redundancy, plus greater bandwidth,” Davenport says.
Migrating Communications for Maximum Features
That reliability is key since the county is largely relying on its own network to serve current and future needs. When planning the refresh, it explored the option of moving systems to the cloud, but it determined that much of its IT footprint would operate better on-premises, in part because some of its government-specific software wasn’t easily migrated.
Still, like other organizations, county officials recognized the post-pandemic reality of remote work, and while the county board had yet to fully embrace it as a permanent solution, it was willing to explore options that would position it for success.
One obvious area for cloud experimentation was collaboration. As part of its data center refresh, the county sought upgrades throughout its communications infrastructure, and easing workers’ access to voice and data services — wherever they were located — might benefit from a cloud component.
“They bought new servers, and we did an upgrade and migration of their existing IP phone system to a new unified collaboration system,” explains Jared Wuest, collaboration technical lead at CDW. “They were on an old, outdated system that was no longer supported and wanted to move to a solution that could integrate with cloud-based solutions.”
But first, the migration would present a challenge for CDW engineers to solve. Eventually, the county would be running Cisco Unified Communications Manager 14, but first Wuest and the CDW team needed to move things from version 10.5, for which Cisco ended support in 2022. That required an interim step that CDW handled under its professional services contract with the county.
“When we did the upgrade, we ran into issues, particularly with some of the third-party integrations,” Wuest says. “We ended up having to upgrade them to an interim version, then upgrade again.”
One third-party integration that the county uses for emergency mass notification was also no longer supported. CDW discovered that updating the system alongside the county’s new unified platform exposed bugs that prevented a straight upgrade. Wuest personally built a brand-new server for the notification system and then migrated the county’s data manually.
“It can be risky if you miss something, because it’s not a supported upgrade method,” he says. But Wuest and his team got the new collaboration platform and its component parts working perfectly.
“It’s understandable that an upgrade like this could be challenging,” he says. “It’s infrastructure software, and as long as it’s working, organizations tend to wait. But in this case, it makes sense to be on a three-to-five-year refresh plan. Cisco and the other vendors are making more changes to their applications faster. There was a time when you could be on the old Cisco CallManager for five years or more, but with so many new capabilities coming out, Cisco is making a concerted effort to make it easier to do upgrades.”
Top Drivers of Managed Services
Data center modernization is a critical initiative for state and local government agencies that want to improve their IT infrastructure capabilities and service delivery. Here are some statistics that illustrate the current state of and future trends in data center modernization in the public sector:
The estimated number of applications that U.S. states use that require around-the-clock monitoring and management1
The percentage of state technology leaders who say the pandemic increased demand for digital government services2
The percentage of state technology who say they did not consult citizens on changes made to “the engagement layer” of services3
The percentage of state technology officials who say that at least half of their applications require modernizaton4
Sources: 1blogs.vmware.com, “How State and Local Agencies Can Modernize Their Data Platforms,” July 28, 2023; 2National Association of State Chief Information Officers, Driving Digital Acceleration: The 2021 State CIO Survey, October 2021; 3National Association of State Technology Directors, “State Government’s IT Modernization Efforts: Status, Progress & Plans,” November 2022; 4National Association of State Chief Information Officers, “Application Modernization Is an Imperative for State Governments,” October 5, 2022
Unified Collaboration with a Touch of Cloud
Among the capabilities county officials asked CDW engineers to enable while engaged on the project was broad availability of softphones for workers. They also wanted to deploy physical phones more easily to new and existing employees and asked CDW to propose a solution.
“We set it up so that they could mail someone a new phone and a power adapter, send them an email with a 16-digit code or a QR code, and when they plug in the phone, it asks for the code and automatically registers them in the system,” Wuest says. “No usernames, passwords or anything like that.”
In addition, CDW set up the county’s on-premises Cisco collaboration system to integrate with the cloud version so it could get a feel for the flexibility of a cloud-based solution. The CDW team proposed the idea outside the scope of the on-prem UC upgrade so the county could experience the cloud without piloting a separate solution.
“We’re doing a proof of concept for them to include cloud-based Webex calling and collaboration,” Wuest says. “We’re migrating over some of their users and leveraging the capabilities of their new gateway router to talk with Cisco’s cloud, then integrate back into their on-prem solution.”
To users, the communications system looks the same. They still call one another at their existing numbers, unaware some calls traverse the cloud. And the county’s IT department can explore integration of possible “cloud-first” communications applications.
“It lets them dip their toe into the cloud in a low-risk way because of how it’s configured,” Wuest says. “If we had to roll them back on anything, we could that really easily and really quickly.”
From Spinning Disks to Flash
Finally, the county looked to overhaul its storage infrastructure. It had long relied on spinning disk arrays in its data center, but that technology slowed employees’ access to files and severely limited the IT department’s ability to perform timely backups. Officials described starting backups on a Friday and letting them run over the weekend, an issue CDW engineers knew exactly how to address.
CDW helped migrate the county’s data center to flash-based Pure Storage arrays and Veeam data protection software, an integrated solution that CDW engineers have extensive experience bringing to state and local government IT shops. Backups now take hours instead of days, and workers comment on how much faster they’re able to work on files in the production storage environment.
Plus, using the combined capabilities of Pure Storage, Veeam and the county’s existing VMware virtualization platform, IT staff has made extensive use of the new environment’s snapshot functionality for better mirroring and recovery between redundant data centers.
“The uptick in network speed combined with the high-performance storage upgrade has made a lot of the county’s departments happier,” Davenport says.
Specifically, county officials cite the performance of financial systems as noticeably more responsive than before the data center refresh. And because all of it is easier to manage, the IT department feels confident that it will be able to maintain a high level of performance with its existing staff, even in its rural setting, now and in the future.
“As they do more video and collaboration, and as the Internet of Things comes online in county government, the added bandwidth, data center performance and simplicity are important,” says Davenport. “The work they’ve done today will serve them well down the road.”
Story by Brad Grimes