Q&A: Hyperconvergence Delivers Speed and Scalability to Oakland University

As storage grew costlier and more complex, an IT team saw an opportunity to simplify data center management.

Like many in higher education, Mariusz Nowak has to figure out how to do more with less. 

“With today’s climate in education — there’s this huge push toward reduction of tuition, and almost every dollar counts — we’ve been looking for more cost-saving initiatives,” says Nowak, director of infrastructure services at Oakland University in Rochester, Mich.

When he reviewed the university’s IT portfolio over the years, one cost jumped out: storage, both the systems and the human resources required to keep pace with their increasing complexities.

To reduce those costs and simplify the environment, Nowak and his team transitioned to a hyperconverged infrastructure consisting of VMware’s vSphere, vSAN and vRealize Suite across two redundant data centers on the north and south ends of campus. EdTech recently spoke with Nowak about the project.

MORE FROM EDTECH: Check out how colleges are streamlining IT through hyperconverged data centers!

EDTECH: What made you consider HCI? 

NOWAK: We used to be a traditional shop with traditional storage and VMware’s VSphere virtualization. When vSAN was announced in 2014, it was a perfect fit because it could simplify our environment. We could focus on one hardware vendor, one software vendor, reduce the complexity and significantly reduce the cost of the entire solution.

Plus, we could introduce a lot of new features like encryption, which was not possible before because encrypted drives are so expensive. We could add additional features like stretched cluster, which was a big improvement over what we had before. We had a typical data center single cluster with just simple backup. Now we can actually serve our customers — students and faculty — from two data centers on the campus.

We’re also running vRealize, which helps us with monitoring and data analysis and with the operation of the environment. 

And we replaced the backup infrastructure at the same time. We used to use tape backups, but this winter, we started moving our offsite copies to Amazon Web Services. It’s in progress now. Veeam software interfaces with AWS, so the process is entirely automated

EDTECH: What was your timeline for the project? 

NOWAK: We’ve been VMware customers since the early days — 13 years or so. We started with probably 25 virtual servers in 2005. Now I would say we are about 95 percent virtualized. Our footprint is about 400 virtual servers running on our environment.

Nowak
I had to have a vision of what I wanted to do and where my destination was, because there were multiple components involved.”

Mariusz Nowak Director, Infrastructure Services at Oakland University

So, we started the move toward HCI by just thinking about upgrading and how we can refresh, how we can change this environment to better serve the university. It was probably 2015 when we started talking about HCI. We purchased the vSAN licenses in March 2016 and did a couple of proofs of concept. 

HCI consists of modular systems, so it’s not like a forklift, where you move all your data from the old storage system to the new storage system. You can keep adding or replacing components on the sly and expand the system as you go, so there is practically zero downtime. It happened over almost a year, but at this point, we’ve practically migrated everything from the old infrastructure.

MORE FROM EDTECH: Read more about how hyperconvergence can simplify data center management!

EDTECH: What did you need to do to plan for the transition? 

NOWAK: I had to have a vision of what I wanted to do and where my destination was, because there were multiple components involved. The project involved multiple parts: security, networking, storage. You touch one thing, and you run into another issue. It was a complex project from the beginning. So, I spent time with my team just brainstorming and thinking of what we could do. 

We’ve been kind of pioneers in the field. I didn’t want to be too rash. VSAN was just introduced in 2014 and wasn’t ready for enterprise or the education sector in the beginning. But about two years later, I thought it was ready. 

EDTECH: How did you prepare your staff for the changes? 

NOWAK: We are a fairly small group. When I tell people what we’re doing with our staff (seven full-time employees who report to me and 35 IT people overall), they can’t believe it. 

I talked to my team and said, “This is a great way to expand your skills and grow professionally.” I try to unify skills, avoid silos and cross-train people, especially with the VMware platform. I tell them, no matter what you do — you can do Windows, you can do Linux, you can do Red Hat — it doesn’t hurt if you have some VMware training on the side. 

EDTECH: What are the main benefits you’ve experienced since moving to HCI? 

NOWAK: No. 1 would be savings. We can do more, we can consolidate more. There is less downtime. After I moved to the new infrastructure, the developers started asking, “What happened? My application is running 50 percent faster.” It’s just a huge impact on everyone.

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Oct 09 2018