Feb 14 2012

Converged Infrastructure Unifies the Data Center

Blending servers, storage and switches conserves power and floor space.

At Andover Public Schools in Kansas, IT inhabited a data center snake pit. Category 5 cables were stretched across racks, three HVAC systems labored to maintain the proper temperature, and power was maxed out.

“We’re a fast-growing district, and our data center was bursting at the seams due to the spike in data consumption,” says Superintendent Mark A. Evans. “We were facing a major capital expenditure to build a new server room.”

The district of 5,500 students and 750 employees supports 10 schools, an online school and services, including online enrollment. Fifty aging servers and five storage arrays were doing yeoman’s work to handle the load. While Evans was tempted to construct a new data center, Technology Director Rob Dickson asked him to consider an alternative solution: a converged infrastructure.

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.

“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.

Most major manufacturers, including Cisco Systems, EMC, Fujitsu, HP and NetApp, offer some type of converged infrastructure. For example, VMware, Cisco and EMC partnered to offer the VCE Vblock system of integrated servers, storage and switching.

The powerhouse trio sold Evans and Dickson on the turnkey solution. “They offered us one-number support for the entire data center, something we wouldn’t have had otherwise,” says Dickson.

Andover Public Schools’ Vblock configuration features eight VMware-based Cisco blade servers, two Cisco Nexus switches and one EMC VNX storage array. “Everything has dual redundancy, and data can be dynamically moved across all blades,” Dickson says.

The $600,000 Vblock precluded the need for a new data center, which would have cost the district more than $1 million. The rollout has also been integral in meeting the school board’s online-enrollment mandate of 80 percent for current students and 100 percent for new students. The old infrastructure could not have withstood that amount of traffic, and the district would have had to pay $25,000 per year to host the enrollment system elsewhere.

The Vblock runs most of the district’s applications, including the student information system and the phone system. The point-and-click automated configuration, terabyte backplane and 30TB of storage make it easy for the IT team to bring on new applications and better support older ones. “It figures out and allocates resources that I might not have known, such as the fastest storage for a certain application,” Dickson says.

Since deploying the converged infrastructure last fall, the district has reaped power and cooling efficiencies. The consolidation has reduced energy consumption by 60 percent and requires only one HVAC unit. In addition, the hardware can operate on a single backup battery (versus two in the past), and the streamlined architecture has eliminated the snarl of cables.

Path to the Future

The benefits of converged infrastructure are not lost on Mark Lamson, director of technology for Westerly Public Schools in Rhode Island. “Blending servers, storage and switches would be ideal,” he says. “You’d have common toolsets, ease of management and one vendor to go back to if you have issues.”

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


Lamson is eyeing converged infrastructure for his next upgrade cycle, which is only a few years away. He intends to prove the return on investment of such a move by demonstrating how IT staff could be better utilized. For instance, today his staff of five is divided into discrete groups for servers, storage and switching. With a converged infrastructure, that team could be combined to meet the needs of the 3,200 students, faculty, staff and guest users. “You’ve not only unified the infrastructure, but also IT, which would be a cost savings,” he says.

EMA’s Jim Frey applauds districts looking beyond the hardware to make the business case for converged infrastructure, which he says will be essential for significant, disruptive projects such as virtual desktop infrastructure, one-to-one notebook programs and rich-media distance learning. Though the upfront cost 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.

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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