Case study: Cisco's first UCS customer Catholic Education

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This article appeared in the March, 2010 issue of CRN magazine.

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Case study: Cisco's first UCS customer Catholic Education

CEnet is an unusual customer for Dimension Data. The organisation was formed several years ago when three Catholic dioceses pooled their technology requirements into a single entity, initially called Castnet. That morphed over time into CEnet, a consortium of 15 Catholic dioceses, each with its own autonomous education system. 

CEnet's charter is to deliver centralised IT services supporting the school systems. In practice this means managing a data centre to deliver services such as authenticated and filtered access to the internet, learning management systems, virtual learning environments, student portals and web-based emails, and content management systems.

The data centre has 10 racks with 40 to 50 servers, which are run by six staff, says Glen  Gibson, CEnet solutions architect.

Application service provision is outsourced to Melbourne-based company Editure, which sells a product called MyInternet. CEnet is looking at outsourcing additional services based on the UCS [Cisco's Unified Computing System] platform, such as video conferencing, virtual learning and student portals.

"There's a whole host of social networking tools that have applications in the classroom," says Gibson. "We're looking at what technologies are coming along in that regard", including unified communications and collaboration tools.

The latest project started off as a server refresh but ended up tripping down the path to cloud computing. The project's intent is to offload the burden of IT delivery for schools in a way that acknowledges the different needs of each diocese.

CEnet covers small dioceses like Wagga Wagga through to the Archdiocese of Sydney. The potential for a virtualised data centre capable of running infrastructure as a service would let CEnet assign resources according to the size of the diocese. 

Upgrading the data centre to UCS would give CEnet a more flexible base to experiment with cutting-edge technologies in an education context.

"That's one of the whole aims of the UCS project - to provide us with an infrastructure that lets us do anything. The whole [point of] virtualisation is so that you can build and tear down services in a way that allows us to move quickly as technology is developed and new applications and services come into the market," says Gibson.

One element that had to be maintained through the upgrade was autonomy at a network level. Security was very important, not just to protect against external threats but to protect each diocese from the others. Although connections were aggregated through the WAN, firewall policies regulate the traffic between diocese, each of which sits within its own IP VPN cloud. 

"We are protecting the other dioceses from malicious users on the network. There are some pretty clever kids out there who like to have a bit of fun," says Gibson.

The UCS upgrade was CEnet's "first toe in the water" with virtualisation, says Gibson. The alternative was to continue buying more stand-alone HP DL360 servers. Gibson says the appeal of blade systems led him into a comparison between HP and Cisco.

Why did he go with Cisco UCS?

"It was mostly around the technical aspects of UCS. Cisco's done a really good job of integrating the switching fabric with the blade system.

"There were a few key technical advantages for not really a lot more money. The cost was quite competitive, really comparable with HP blade system."

These advantages included cost savings in cabling, simpler operations and tighter integration with VMware through the Nexus 1000V virtual switch.

He expects the 40-plus servers to reduce to about 10 over the next 12 months as they push everything into the UCS platform. The savings in cabling alone are considerable. Given that each stand-alone server has three network cards for storage, networking and out-of-band management, a switchport for each GigE connection would have added up to 150 48-port connections for 50 servers. 

Gibson roughly estimates savings in cabling of $20,000 to $30,000 through the simplified UCS design.

"It's more around streamlining our processes - the less we have the easier to manage," says Gibson. He is also counting on big drops in power consumption and cooling requirements. Another bonus is the ability to remotely manage the data centre.

A key selling point of virtualisation in general was just-in-time upgrades. CEnet typically would plan a three-year cycle for hardware refreshes on server equipment. Now Gibson's team can forget about refreshes because applications running in virtual machines move between blades and chassis as needed.

The redundancy built into a virtualisation platform like UCS means "you pretty much just run these things until they die", says Gibson. "It?s more of a linear approach, not refreshing and replacing all the day." 

The team spends more time now on ongoing capacity planning. 

CEnet decided to upgrade the switching with Nexus hardware because VMware vSwitch couldn't natively deliver the QOS (quality-of-service) granularity required, says Gibson. The HP blades also needed an external switching module, which would have raised cabling costs. The Nexus-VMware integration gives greater control
of traffic over the blade system, which was another key requirement, says Gibson.

"It was key for us in that we need to maintain the security separation between virtual machines across different dioceses.

"In effect we can offer an infrastructure-as-a-service capability to our dioceses but deliver service guarantees for virtual machines. Multiple dioceses would have virtual machines running on the same blade," says Gibson.

Storage also came up for review. The NetApp storage array was too small and too slow because it was running out of disk space. CEnet looked at a demo of hardware from EMC which, along with VMware, is one of the three vendors in the Virtual Computing Environment (VCE) alliance with Cisco.

CEnet looked at a newcomer to storage, Compellent. Gibson says he was "quite impressed" with the Compellent solution's approach to multi-tiered, automatic storage. Compellent was able to identify frequently accessed data and store it on SSDs, and push less frequently used data down the tiers to fibre-channel drives and SATA disks. 

For example the Compellent system automatically pushed archived email to the cheaper SATA disks. "Compellent had some superior options," says Gibson.

Ultimately it proved cheaper to upgrade the existing NetApp array to 10GigE and add more disk capacity rather than replace it with a competing product.

Gibson says there was also "pretty strong partnering" between Cisco, VMware and NetApp. "You might argue that the VCE alliance is a bit stronger from a marketing perspective, but I'm not sure there's a technical advantage," says Gibson. "I see the integration between the blade system and the hypervisor as more critical than integration with the storage. Storage just hangs off the side."

The main storage requisite was multi-tenanted ability, which all vendors support in some fashion. 

Dimension Data won a CEnet tender two and a half years ago for management and monitoring services, and the integrator has built a close relationship over that time, says Gibson. Dimension Data "were happy" with either the HP blade system or Cisco UCS for the compute side and NetApp or EMC for storage, says Gibson.   

The next step is to build a private cloud that becomes a platform for shared services across the CEnet network. When the market is ready CEnet could potentially augment its private cloud with a public cloud connection.

"I think the way this will work is that we will take baby steps towards it and put non-critical systems in the public cloud. Then as confidence grows we will look to reduce the amount that we spend on our own hardware and increase the amount that we put in the cloud," says Gibson. He sees this gradual process taking two to five years.

"Once the idea of cloud computing matures people will be starting to make greater use of public cloud services for their mainstream application delivery," says Gibson.

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