Jan 09 2023

K-12 Schools Modernize Their On-Premises Data Centers with Hyperconverged Infrastructure

Districts reap big benefits from modern hyperconverged infrastructure with simpler IT management to cost savings.

When it was time for New Albany–Floyd County Consolidated School Corp. in Indiana to upgrade its aging server and storage hardware, it could have purchased another server and storage area network. However, a traditional server and SAN setup would have been expensive for this district of 12,000 students and 1,200 staff.

Plus, managing a traditional data center is not exactly easy. So, NAFCS decided to explore the latest technology.

What IT staff members discovered was hyperconverged infrastructure. They learned HCI equipment is more affordable and easier to manage. That led the district, in 2020, to purchase Scale Computing’s HC3 hyperconverged computing cluster system.

“We have been absolutely blown away by HCI. It reduces costs. It reduces complexity,” says Chris Bowers, the district’s IT manager. “One thing I never get tired of is how easy it is to keep the product up to date. When Scale pushes out software updates, patches and fixes, we can upgrade automatically. That’s the promise of HCI. We can upgrade during the production day, and all services remain online. It’s truly seamless.”

As school districts like NAFCS modernize their IT infrastructure, many adopt some cloud services. However, most take a hybrid approach that involves running their critical applications and housing their data on-premises.

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More school districts adopt HCI, which combines servers, storage and networking resources with virtualization software in an integrated system. Managed through a centralized software tool, these unified systems are highly available and reliable. They are also simpler to deploy, manage and scale, which can result in significant cost savings.

“HCI takes away a lot of the mundane, tedious work that IT folks used to spend a lot of time on,” says Matt Kimball, a vice president at Moor Insights & Strategy. “It’s literally point-and-click simplicity. That’s important in education. They are understaffed like everybody else, but education seems to be more so. They have fewer people to do things, so it helps.”

Hyperconverged Infrastructure Simplifies K–12 IT Management

In early 2020, NAFCS replaced its 7-year-old servers and SAN with a three-node Scale HC3 cluster that has 100 terabytes of storage. In doing so, the district consolidated its hardware from five physical servers to three and eliminated the SAN.

Migration was easy, Bowers says. He and his team used the Carbonite Migrate software tool to move its virtual machines and data from the old hardware to the new solution. The migration tool helped the district convert existing VMware-based VMs to Scale’s Kernel-based Virtual Machine HyperCore hypervisor, he says. Bowers and his team manage the HCI equipment through Scale’s web-based management console, where they spin up servers, provision storage, restore workloads from snapshots and do software upgrades.

“It’s all in a single pane of glass,” he says. “Everything we need to do with the cluster is right there. The three individual servers are connected and share a pool of storage. When we manage it, it looks just like a single resource.”

Bowers loves the high-availability features of the system. When upgrading software on one node, Scale shuffles the node’s workloads to the other two nodes to keep the workloads running. Once the node is fully updated and restarts, its workloads automatically move back to that first node, he says.

In 2021, the IT staff expanded its Scale implementation by installing a one-node Scale HCI system at a secondary site for disaster recovery. They added another one-node Scale system at a high school as an edge server for imaging teacher and staff notebook computers.

Overall, Bowers says he’s extremely satisfied with the Scale HCI solution.

“It was a game changer for us,” he says. “It provided substantial upfront savings, and in terms of management, it provides ongoing time savings for our staff.”

RELATED: Learn how one district found security and simplicity with HCI.

Hyperconverged Infrastructure Bolsters IT Productivity

When Millard Public Schools in Omaha, Neb., needed to refresh its server and storage hardware, the district’s IT department standardized on Nutanix’s HCI solution because of its price and performance. Other key benefits include hardware consolidation and the IT staff’s ability to work faster and more efficiently, says District Technology Manager Joe Kuehl.

Historically, the IT department dispersed its servers and storage across 39 district buildings, including 38 schools. That achieved Millard’s disaster recovery goals because there was no single point of failure. However, the decentralized approach was a management nightmare, requiring staff to travel to different sites to troubleshoot, Kuehl says.

In 2020, Kuehl and his IT team centralized and modernized the infrastructure by purchasing five four-node Nutanix HCI NX series appliances. They installed three clusters at the district office’s data center to be used for VMs, file servers and virtual desktop infrastructure; and two clusters in an offsite location for disaster recovery.

During the past year, the district installed an additional cluster to its main data center to manage the district’s video surveillance and door access control software, with a matching cluster for disaster recovery.

“We went from having servers in all of our buildings to centralizing all of it,” he says. “And we still cut four full racks down to two in our main data center.”

91%

The percentage of IT decision-makers who have already deployed HCI or plan to do so within two years

Source: Nutanix, “4th Annual Nutanix Enterprise Cloud Index: Multicloud Is Here to Stay,” January 2022

HCI simplifies management, Kuehl says. Nutanix’s HCI software enables the district to manage its apps, data and disaster recovery with Nutanix Prism management software. With one click, he says, IT staff can upgrade Nutanix’s software and firmware, and can restore files and servers using backup snapshots in just seconds — a task that used to take several hours.

Nutanix software is also flexible, allowing the district to continue using VMware’s vSphere hypervisor, which it had previously standardized on, instead of the Nutanix AHV hypervisor.

“The team loves it. It’s so easy to use,” Kuehl says. “They can do everything they need from one interface and not have to jump in and out of several interfaces to do their daily work.”

Spring Branch Schools Benefit from Consolidation, Automation with HCI

Three years into its HCI deployment, Spring Branch Independent School District in Houston is saving money, says Ben Allen, the 46-school district’s lead systems engineer. Not only is HCI equipment more affordable, but it also allowed the district to consolidate hardware, which has reduced its energy bill, Allen says.

In 2019, Spring Branch ISD replaced the 128 antiquated blades and network-attached storage at its primary data center with a 12-node HCI cluster featuring Dell PowerEdge rack servers running on Microsoft Azure Stack HCI software.

“HCI offers a huge price advantage, but we’ve also shrunk our data center footprint substantially by going with converged infrastructure, which has lowered our power consumption,” he says.

Migration was easy — the district simply moved Microsoft Hyper-V VMs from the old equipment to the new. It also purchased two smaller Dell HCI clusters for disaster recovery: four nodes at a DR site and another two nodes as a second backup at the police department, Allen says.

Automation has made a huge impact, he says. With the new web-based Windows Admin Center, IT staff can manage all three clusters through a single pane of glass.

Using the management tool, IT administrators can automatically update firmware and software without downtime. For extra redundancy at the main data center, the district uses only 11 nodes, keeping the 12th node on standby. If a node goes down, the software is smart enough to automatically move workloads to the extra node to keep operations running, he says.

“Because of budgets and manpower, you’ve got to automate where you can, or you will always be fighting fires,” Allen says. “We are no longer spending our days troubleshooting. Hyperconverged infrastructure is a set-it-and-forget-it solution for us.”

Illustration by Ryan Olbrysh

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