Unified computing makes Alaska smaller, faster, more secure

Alaska’s Enterprise Technology Services team knew that if the division was going to be a true IT services provider for the state, ETS had to become more agile in its delivery of services.

With that realization, ETS started on a journey that led to deploying a platform through which the organization now offers agencies shared services via a private cloud, increasing operational speed and lowering IT costs.

Over the years, ETS had become overwhelmed by the number of IT projects it had to handle, causing major delays in the delivery of technology to support state agencies and services to citizens.

Moreover, infrastructure inefficiencies and the lack of a unified team within the state's data center hampered efforts to get the best value from IT equipment. The situation was further complicated by the 16 departments within the state that had different standards and procedures for deploying IT.

“We were going out and buying silos of hardware and if the project got delayed, the hardware would sit around and we wouldn’t get the return on investment we should get out of it,” said Corey Kos, Alaska’s enterprise architect, hired two years ago to help improve the situation.

Kos knew that ETS, a division in Alaska’s Department of Administration, needed to become faster and more agile to provide consolidated e-mail and other enterprise services to state agencies.

Virtualization would be a start toward consolidating infrastructure, Kos knew from past experience. However, he also thought ETS needed to explore other approaches if it really wanted to become a true IT services provider for the state.

Kos checked research from Gartner about unified or "fabric" computing. Unified computing refers to a high-performance system consisting of loosely coupled storage, networking and parallel processing functions, all linked by high-bandwidth. 10-gigabit Ethernet networks.

A hands-on training session with Cisco partner World Wide Technology led ETS to Cisco’s Unified Computing System (UCS), designed to eliminate redundant devices and layers of management complexity. UCS integrates x86 blade servers, access and storage networking, virtualization and management. UCS has a single management interface that controls thousands of virtual machines.

Alaska's ETS also deployed FlexPod, a combination of the Cisco UCS system, VMware virtualization and NetApp storage devices that are connected through Cisco Unified Fabric as a way to provide secure delivery of IT services to users.

Kos came from a background of commodity based-hardware and “build your own environments.” He was not a fan of blade technology nor of unified computing. But having a system that would eliminate the costs of duplicating hardware, cables and network and storage switches made business sense.

In the area of operations, Kos was also able to bring together network and infrastructure teams, which normally operated separately. “It was funny we ended up aligning our organization where the technology was driving the industry – the unified data center,” Kos said.

ETS has developed a secure multi-tenant cloud that lets agency clients decide what type of involvement they want with their IT organizations. In the past “it was all or nothing” if they came over to ETS, Kos said.

“What we ended up doing with the new platform is to give them varying levels of control,” he said. ETS can fully manage their environment or carve out an environment that they fully manage and ETS will take care of the hardware. Moreover, ETS can handle every variable in between those scenarios, depending on the user’s case.

In the process, ETS’ security posture has been strengthened. Boundaries can be drawn across agency lines. If you’re going to have a secure, multi-tenant platform, Kos noted, you have to show users that there is secure isolation at every level of the technology stack -- at the compute, network, and storage and policy levels

“Historically, we could give you your own virtual LAN, but you’d share some computer or storage,” he added.

The new platform helps ETS adopt more creative approaches to offering services. For instance, secure tenants are not always agencies, sometimes they can be services. ETS is planning a new voice system based on Cisco Call Manager 8.X, designed to be its own secure multi-tenant, Kos said.

“Now that is a service underneath our own department and division, but we separated it out from even our own resources,” he said.

That is the type of mindset the ETS team now has in planning out its tenancy model, which will help strengthen the division’s security posture. Team members spent substantial engineering time earlier in the project to try to think of every single multi-tenant scenario that they could imagine in their efforts, setting up a more secure and agile environment, he added.

The team started its move to unify its data centers in March 2011 and went live with the new platform six months later in September. Three of the 16 departments are using the private cloud based on the unified data center solutions, but all state employees are using it virtually, Kos said, because Microsoft Exchange 2010 e-mail runs on the platform.

Alaska is also undergoing a six-year replacement of the state’s enterprise resource planning system, which is coming off a mainframe system and will run in the private cloud. And Alaska’s security portfolio is undergoing a complete forklift and is also running on the platform, Kos said.

Alaska has three primary data centers, in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau, the state capital, for disaster recovery. The Anchorage and Juneau data centers are fundamentally mirrors of each other and the Cisco UCS and FlexPod are deployed in both. Fairbanks has a smaller data center that switches over to Anchorage in a crisis or outage.

Although Alaska is able to leverage the Cisco Wide Area Network to provide unified service delivery, organizations do not necessarily need a Cisco environment to deploy Cisco UCS and FlexPod, Kos said. The unified system can be architected to work in other network vendors' environments, he noted.

Kos is still trying to work out a model to determine what type of return on investment the state is getting from the unified computing system.

There is a cost-savings by not having to deploy additional network switches and servers, Kos noted. However, he doesn’t think that is where the bulk of the savings occur. He noted soft costs that people are trying to pin down such as electricity and cooling savings in the data center.

Being able to set up physical servers just as rapidly as virtual servers is a big advantage, Kos said, adding that the team rapidly set up a physical server recently integrated with thousands of VLANS in the data center.

“There is not a lot of engineering drama,” and that is where some of the savings occur, he noted.

“We have gotten to a point where I am outpacing my projects,” Kos said. In the past, infrastructure determined how quickly a project could move forward. In the case of a recent huge enterprise services deployment, Kos said, “the project had to catch up with us."

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