Chris Sacho, former IT Manager of Data Centers, Milwaukee County, Wis., says hyperconverged infrastructure provides both scalability and reliability. 

Sep 27 2019
Data Center

Hyperconvergence Provides Fast Storage for Government Apps

Among the advantages of powerful hyperconverged infrastructure appliances for state and local agencies: speedy hard drives that deliver quickly when required.

Milwaukee County, Wis., recently turned to a managed service provider to host most of its mission-critical applications and data. But when it came time to implement Voice over IP, the IT department purchased its own hyperconverged equipment and kept the new phone system in-house to ensure high-quality communications.

The IT staff standardized on a Cisco HyperFlex system, providing the county with the storage and redundancy necessary to successfully deploy and operate a new Avaya IP phone system, says Chris Sacho, who until recently was Milwaukee County’s IT manager of data centers, a position he held for several years.

“From a phone quality perspective, instead of traversing across the state to our service provider’s data center for call routing and back, it just made more sense to keep it in-house,” Sacho says.

Government agencies increasingly install hyperconverged infrastructure, which integrates server, storage, networking and virtualization into a small appliance. These integrated systems are simpler to deploy and manage, and support server and storage virtualization, which improves utilization of resources and saves money.

Early HCI adopters initially used hyperconverged systems for virtual desktop infrastructure and less critical applications. But in recent years, as the technology has proved its effectiveness, more agencies have turned to HCI for mission-critical, performance-intensive tasks, such as database management, says Mike Leone, senior analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group.

That’s where faster HCI storage with solid-state drives and Non-Volatile Memory Express (NVMe) becomes important. Early on, vendors offered all-flash drives, but not many organizations needed the additional speed. Now that organizations are putting compute-intensive applications on their hyperconverged systems, they need that faster performance, Leone says.

“These applications benefit from more high-performance storage and next-generation technologies,” he says. 


Milwaukee County Uses HCI to Deliver High-Quality Phone Service

This year, Milwaukee County began replacing its aging PBX with a new Avaya IP phone system. With its on-premises servers nearing end of life, the county needed new hardware, so it purchased a four-node Cisco HyperFlex HX220c M5 system featuring hybrid storage: SSDs for caching and about 7 terabytes of hard disk drive storage for each node.

The system stores the virtual machines that run the phone system as well as voicemail for Milwaukee County’s 4,300 employees.

The county began migrating its offices to the new phone system this summer and will complete its implementation by the first quarter of 2020. So far, Cisco HyperFlex works as advertised as far as ease of management and reliability go, Sacho says.


Percentage of IT professionals surveyed who have adopted hyperconverged storage to speed up application performance

Source: DataCore, “The State of Software-Defined Storage, Hyperconverged and Cloud Storage,” October 2018

“It not only provides good performance for the phone system, but it also integrates well with VMware. We can easily manage virtual machines, and with Cisco’s graphical user interface, it’s easy to carve out data stores for the VMs as well,” he says.

If one node goes down, the other three nodes can pick up the slack and keep the phone system running. To ensure uptime, the county also replicated the Avaya system to its private cloud at its managed service provider’s data center 80 miles away, in Madison, Wis.

“HyperFlex provides resiliency from hardware failure. But if there’s a lengthy power outage or disaster recovery situation, it will fail over to Madison,” Sacho says.

The county likes the scalability of hyperconverged systems. When more compute or storage is needed, it will simply buy more appliances, Sacho says.

While the county migrated about 240 virtual servers running life safety and business applications to a service provider, it still runs about 60 virtual servers on-premises, including domain controllers, Domain Name System services and archived data to fulfill public records requests. The county plans to buy two more HyperFlex nodes in the coming years when its remaining servers reach end of life, Sacho says. 

“It makes sense to keep archives in-house instead of paying per gig in the cloud,” he says. 

MORE FROM STATETECH: Discover how HCI improves state and local government disaster recovery.

Pasadena Gets Speedy Apps and Data Access via HCI

In 2018, Pasadena Water and Power upgraded from old blade servers and an aging storage array to new Dell EMC VxRail hyperconverged appliances to save money and simplify management for the California city, says David Chau, the department’s IT security officer.

Now, when employees spin up new VMs, they can also use VMware’s vSAN storage virtualization software to easily provision storage too.

“It’s one large storage volume. I no longer need to manage separate block storage. Before, having to create the LUNs [logical unit numbers] and present them to the cluster was painful,” Chau says.

The new, eight-node hyperconverged system is also incredibly fast, he says, thanks to SSDs and a boost in memory. The VxRail appliances supply a total of 195.6TB of all-flash storage and 6TB of memory — 3TB for each data center. With the previous equipment, the department had only 1.5TB of memory for its 200 virtual servers.

Now, Microsoft Windows servers on SSDs launch in five seconds — much faster than the 20 to 25 seconds it used to take on spinning disks — which has improved employee productivity. In fact, latency is now 0.1 millisecond, Chau says.

Employees rave about the speed of applications and data access.

“When our users run large SQL queries, it’s significantly faster,” Chau says. “Our application developers, SQL administrators and regular users love the performance. Everything is so snappy.”

The all-flash storage also allows for deduplication and compression, resulting in more efficient use of storage resources, Chau says. Deduplication (which eliminates duplicate copies of files) and compression save 35.5TB of storage, so instead of 120TB, the department is currently using only 84TB.

The hyperconverged system with vSAN also improves uptime by allowing the department to operate in a “stretched cluster” configuration. Four nodes in the department’s primary data center replicate to four nodes at a colocation site.

“Around 120 VMs are in full redundancy,” Chau says. “It can withstand a site failure with real-time replication.”

VIDEO: See how one local library made space for innovation with hyperconverged infrastructure.

A Path to Do-It-Yourself Hyperconvergence

Buying a vendor’s all-in-one appliance is only one way to deploy a hyperconverged system. Government agencies can also build their own with hyperconverged software, benefitting from both customization and flexibility.

That’s exactly what Emergency Communications of Southern Oregon, in Medford, Ore., did about two years ago. The 911 communciations center did so through the combination of DataCore Hyperconverged Virtual SAN software and VMware server virtualization software on Dell PowerEdge servers.

The center, which links 10 law enforcement agencies, 14 fire departments and more, deployed two servers at its primary data center and replicated its applications and data to two servers at its backup data center.

HCI offers the latest storage features, including SSDs and support for the NVMe high-speed transport protocol (both of which provide faster data access), as well as deduplication and compression, which eliminate redundancies and store data using less space.


Percentage of IT organizations that have begun to deploy NVM

Source: DataCore, “The State of Software-Defined Storage, Hyperconverged and Cloud Storage,” October 2018

To speed performance, IT Manager Corey Nelson equipped his agency's hyperconverged system with 20TB of NVMe-based SSD storage — the fastest type of storage available — on each server. NVMe is a protocol that transfers data between SSDs and other components, and it is a faster alternative to the SCSI and ATA protocols, which were created when hard drives and tape dominated storage solutions.

Nelson also equipped each of the four servers with 20TB of regular SSD storage, and two of the servers have 30TB of SAS hard disk storage. Because the agency has so much NVMe storage, nearly all of its data is stored on NVMe unless certain applications are, by policy, stored in the lower tiers, Nelson says.

“We have much better performance. It’s like night and day,” he says.

Server and storage virtualization allow Nelson to take servers offline for maintenance without any downtime. Data replication from DataCore’s Virtual SAN software also protects the agency from malware infections, Nelson says.

“The continuous data replication is like a DVR. We can rewind back to the second before it got infected,” he says.

Photography by Darren Hauck

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