Jan 27 2012
Data Center

Converged Infrastructure Unifies the Data Center

Blending servers, storage and switches improves manageability and control.

When the Georgia city of Sandy Springs was first incorporated in 2006, a service provider handled IT needs. But as this outlying region of Atlanta continues its rapid growth, bringing infrastructure in-house has become a priority.

“We need resilience beyond a slice of a leased or hosted cloud for public safety and other citizen services,” says Johnny Johnson, a contractor and senior project engineer for the city.

To avoid bumping up against the power, staffing and physical footprint limitations of the planned data center site — an existing area within city hall — the city leaders had to creatively architect the infrastructure. They needed a consolidated, all-in-one, easy-to-manage strategy.

“In its past, the location was used as a service call center, and we re-adopted it for our data center purposes,” Johnson says.

The city chose NetApp’s FlexPod converged infrastructure to provide a uniform platform to support diverse applications for 300 employees and almost 100,000 residents.

Building Blocks

A converged infrastructure blends servers, storage and switches into a preconfigured fabric that is optimized to support virtualization, cloud computing and other popular IT initiatives. Rather than having sprawling racks of disparate hardware, converged infrastructure offers a unified and easily managed data center approach.

Sandy Springs’ NetApp FlexPod converged infrastructure includes a Cisco Systems Unified Computing System of Cisco blade servers featuring VMware virtualization and Cisco Nexus switches, as well as NetApp unified storage.

The well-integrated, self-contained architecture serves up applications for court services, permits, GIS, licensing and public works.

“Converged infrastructure is a compelling alternative to traditional data centers because it saves a lot in terms of deployment and initial configuration,” says Jim Frey, managing research director at Enterprise Management Associates.

Many manufacturers, including Cisco Systems, EMC, Fujitsu, HP and NetApp, offer some type of converged infrastructure.

Frey believes converged infrastructure will become essential as significant, disruptive projects involving virtual desktop infrastructure, bring your own device, social networking and interactive media gain popularity.

Sandy Springs is betting big on the integrated NetApp technology, with plans to stretch what is normally a four-to-five-year refresh cycle on servers alone to seven years. Johnson contends the long-term savings on equipment, licensing and other traditional costs was only part of the business case.

“Standardizing and consolidating infrastructure makes meeting service requirements easier,” Johnson explains. For instance, he points to the traditional need for discrete groups of server, network and storage experts. “That falls away, and you get far more flexibility in how to use your unified team.”

In addition, Johnson was able to make use of existing space, avoiding costly construction. “We didn’t have to accommodate [a lot of] racks or add more power,” he says. “Our almost 70 virtual servers atop six physical servers fit very nicely.”

Step by Step

As Sandy Springs dives into converged infrastructure, the state of Illinois is wading in.

Having recently consolidated more than 25 data centers into a major site with a handful of supporting sites, CIO Sean Vinck  is ready to focus on streamlining the infrastructure itself. “We are aware that there is a next step to take. Anything that can be done to manage efficiency and flexibility is attractive to us, including converged infrastructure,” he says. “We just have to figure out what approach is the least risky for the state.”

Vinck believes that converged infrastructure’s primary benefit is having a single manufacturer to call when something goes wrong versus the handful his team currently juggles. But he balances that advantage with the drawback of potential vendor lock-in.

The decentralized nature of Illinois’ IT environment, which serves 56 state agencies, also makes it difficult to commit to a single architecture. The CIO concedes the disparity among agency business needs exacerbates the costs of serving them and believes convergence would alleviate the current burden on operations. “The more disciplined and uniform we are, the more efficient the state will be,” he says.

EMA’s Frey is familiar with Vinck’s concerns about converged infrastructure. Though the upfront costs for packaged converged infrastructure solutions might be jarring, he says, it will be less expensive than buying all the piece parts for these projects and will help them be deployed much faster.

Converged infrastructure requires 85% less space than traditional servers and 85% less power for operation and cooling


Smart Steps for Deploying Converged Infrastructure

Migrating to or adding converged infrastructure to your network might seem expensive and overwhelming. These tips gathered from IT teams in the trenches will help ease your concerns.

  • Virtualize as much as you can ahead of time. Many districts have already begun to work with server virtualization, which will make the migration to converged infrastructure faster and easier to manage.
  • Study power and heating/cooling capabilities. The savings in HVAC and electricity provided by converged infrastructure will make part, if not all, of your business case for the technology.
  • Use what you already have. Converged infrastructure does not require brand-new, million-dollar, state-of-the-art facilities. The condensed, streamlined, energy-efficient architecture enables schools to eke out more from their existing server rooms.
  • Cross-train your IT staff. In the new world of converged infrastructure, you no longer need separate server, switch and storage experts. Blend your IT staff into a single pool of network talent for maximum coverage and flexibility.

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