Setting the Bar High
A data center refresh helped the State Bar of Wisconsin to improve application performance and infrastructure scalability, while also managing costs.
The State Bar of Wisconsin may be a relatively small organization, but that doesn’t mean its IT staff doesn’t need to plan for data growth.
A few years ago, the organization was looking to replace its data center infrastructure in two waves: First, tech staff planned to tackle a colocation site that housed some production workloads and also served as a disaster recovery data center for the association. Next, the organization wanted to replace the infrastructure at its primary data center.
But IT leadership wanted to be certain that the new infrastructure would be able to grow as the organization generated more data.
“We had some equipment that was getting close to retirement,” recalls Bill Kummer, network and computer systems manager for the State Bar of Wisconsin. “There were some storage arrays that were feeding the virtual machine environment that were aging and needed to be replaced. And our VMware cluster also needed to be replaced.”
The State Bar of Wisconsin’s existing preconfigured storage units made it difficult to adapt to increasing data volumes, and it was important that any new infrastructure solve this problem. Kummer was intrigued by the simplicity and scalability of hyperconverged infrastructure, 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.
“One of our challenges was that we were getting close to running out of space on our existing storage, and adding new storage to expand was cost-prohibitive, since we were looking at replacing it anyway,” Kummer adds. “We were also starting to run short of memory with our VMware cluster, even though we had plenty of processing power.”
To find a solution, the State Bar of Wisconsin worked with CDW, relying on solution architects to help design an architecture that would meet the organization’s needs. “We were looking for a more resilient environment that would allow us to grow our storage inexpensively — and if we needed to, to add more memory — in order to run the virtual machines,” Kummer says. “Working with CDW was a really big plus for us. Internally, we can maintain things, we can build things, we can get ideas on what we need. But CDW really provides that expertise to help us narrow down what we need to concentrate on and to understand which tools are available to help us accomplish our business goals.”
Scaling Storage, Saving Budget
With its existing network-attached storage solution, application performance was sometimes throttled by the infrastructure. “When you have storage that is separate from your VMware cluster, anytime a server needs to access a disk, the data needs to leave the VMware server, travel across the network to the storage environment and then travel back to the server,” Kummer notes.
To improve performance, the State Bar of Wisconsin considered VMware vSAN, a virtual storage area network that pools the storage capacity from multiple drives. “The vSAN solution is very intuitive,” says Steve Moker, a CDW senior consulting engineer who worked with the State Bar of Wisconsin on its data center refresh. “The way vSAN works, the data is spread across multiple nodes, but vSAN also leverages data locality. The infrastructure is intelligent enough that if you move a virtual machine to a host and one of the copies is not local to the host, vSAN moves one of the copies locally. That increases performance, because you’re not accessing data from all across the storage network.”
While the model was attractive to the State Bar of Wisconsin, Kummer wanted to ensure that the organization could deploy it without inadvertently causing costs to spike. To avoid having to purchase additional processing power in the future when it required only additional storage capacity, the organization opted to roll out Hewlett Packard Enterprise ProLiant DL380 Gen10 servers to support its vSAN environment. With the HPE servers, the State Bar of Wisconsin is able to expand storage simply by buying additional drives, without having to worry about new licensing costs. It first deployed the new equipment at its colocation site, using hard disk drives for storage.
A year later, when the organization refreshed its primary data center with the same infrastructure, it opted for high-performance flash drives, taking advantage of newly lower prices for flash storage. “At our primary location, we have double the storage as at the colocation facility, for the same cost,” notes Kummer.
“Working with CDW was a really big plus for us. Internally, we can maintain things, we can build things, we can get ideas on what we need. But CDW really provides that expertise to help us narrow down what we need to concentrate on and to understand which tools are available to help us accomplish our business goals.”
Bill Kummer, Network and Computer Systems Manager, State Bar of Wisconsin
Help from a Partner
Deploying ordinary servers and storage drives helped the State Bar of Wisconsin maintain cost predictability, but it also resulted in a slightly more complicated architecture. Just as the organization relied on help from CDW to design the solution, it partnered with CDW engineers to deploy and configure the new infrastructure.
“I think CDW did a great job of pulling together its resources and ideas to build this out for us,” Kummer says. “Without CDW’s expertise, I might have stayed with a traditional methodology, where we would have had a storage cluster and processing cluster and kept them separate. But talking with someone at CDW, when we tell them, ‘Here are our business needs,’ they can give some good solutions that they know are going to be a fit for the budget and the business needs we have.”
Kummer racked up the equipment, and then Moker came in to assist with configuration. “He looked over my shoulder and walked me through what I needed to do,” Kummer says. “There are a lot of choices during installation and configuration. You can make a bad choice without knowing it. By having CDW here walking us through it, we get a better managed, better performing environment that is tailored to our needs.”
Moker had to manually adjust drivers to ensure that the new servers were compatible with the vSAN, but he was able to work his way through the process quickly, having done similar setups for previous clients. “If the customer were to do it on their own, they might not be up to speed on the latest best practices,” Moker notes. “We’ve done it so many times, even if we see something that’s not the exact problem we’ve encountered before, it’s going to be similar, and we know which direction to go. We know all the little ‘gotchas.’”
Bill Kummer, network and computer systems manager for the State Bar of Wisconsin, worked with CDW to identify a solution that fit the organization's needs and budget.
Kummer says that end users began noticing improvements in application performance as soon as the first stage of the data center refresh was completed. The organization hosts its website and some other production workloads at its colocation site; even though that site is supported primarily with spinning disks and not flash storage, the improvement was dramatic.
“It wasn’t just a statistical improvement,” Kummer says. “It was noticed by end users.”
Moker points out that even the colocation site uses a bit of flash storage for caching. “With vSAN, it’s either all-flash or a hybrid. There’s no all-spinning-disk version,” he says. “If the data is hot, it’s being stored on solid-state drives. Even if they’re not running an all-flash vSAN, they are going to get some performance improvements from the flash.”
The performance improved even more after the State Bar of Wisconsin upgraded its primary data center with a vSAN supported by all-flash storage. That site houses the organization’s customer relationship management system, and users noticed a major difference in the performance of that application, Kummer says.
“The CRM tool is used for everything,” he says. “We track member activities, products they purchase — pretty much every business unit is in there. When members call in to place an order or register for an event, those types of processes are much quicker.”
“There were people wondering what had changed, because things were so much faster,” Kummer adds. “When you try to explain it to them, they get that glassy look. But they were still happy with the performance.”
Designing Data Centers: 3 Factors
Building or refreshing a data center is a long-term project even though technology requirements are forever changing. Organizations are wise to focus on these three factors when designing a data center to maximize the chances of success:
- Existing facilities: Examine the age of the current data center, whether that facility meets current and forecasted needs and whether it’s possible to expand existing facilities. Organizations should also assess the risk of expanding their existing facilities, as well as consider whether outsourcing, colocation or a cloud/hybrid model might better help them meet their needs.
- Business needs: Organizations should understand how the data center and its operations align with the business. That requires looking at how much data the business deals with, how it is gathered and stored, who accesses the data and any relevant industry compliance standards. Leaders should ask questions about how IT infrastructure supports business goals and how business changes in the next five to 10 years will impact data center needs.
- The data center and technology environment: Leaders should consider whether the organization has the facilities, infrastructure and staff in place to ensure adequate processing and storage, monitoring, and power and cooling.
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