Nutanix block in data center

Army saves time, space with converged infrastructure

When the Army’s Program Executive Office for Aviation sought a new platform for its growing virtual desktop infrastructure pilot, the organization got less than it was looking for.

And that’s not a negative development in the Army’s context. PEO Aviation had been in something of a bind. It was outgrowing the servers and storage it used to initially seed its VDI pilot project. The organization ordered Dell blade servers and storage-area network gear from EMC as its new virtual desktop foundation. The procurement process proved uneven, however. The storage arrived in a month, but the servers wouldn’t show up until months later.

In the meantime, Alan Marett, a contractor working as the server network team leader at PEO Aviation, decided on a different direction in ordering  converged storage and server hardware from Nutanix. The first Nutanix “block” arrived in October 2012 and two more units were added over the next few months. Three additional Nutanix blocks are now working their way through the procurement process. 

The Nutanix option required less procurement effort, according to Marett, since the formerly separate storage and server items were combined. The units also take up a much smaller chunk of rack space than what had been envisioned for the blade server-and-SAN architecture. Administrative demands declined as well.

“Converged storage is a whole lot easier and a better solution because, when you get it, everything you need is right there,” Marett said.

The converged product category is relatively new, but rapidly growing. Systems have been available since at least 2009, when Cisco Systems Inc.’s Unified Computing System and HP’s BladeSystem Matrix debuted. Nutanix, based in San Jose, Calif., was founded in 2009 and began shipping its Virtual Computing Platform in 2011.

Recently, big data technologies such as the Hadoop architecture have started to influence the shift toward converged infrastructures in data centers. IDC predicts the integrated systems market will grow from $5.4 billion in 2013 to $14.3 billion in by 2017, a five-year compound annual growth rate of 32.8 percent.

VDI infrastructure

PEO Aviation, located at the Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Ala., has responsibility for the Army’s helicopter, fixed-wing aircraft and unmanned aircraft systems programs. The organization’s VDI pilot involves about 250 users and 400 virtual desktops, a total that includes standby instances. Marett said zero clients, as opposed to fully loaded PCs or laptops, are the primary desktop device for the VDI pilot. The project uses VMware Horizon View virtual desktop solution.

The aviation office tapped Dell blade servers and EMC Celerra network-attached storage to get the pilot under way and test VDI.  Marett said he eventually spec’d out more powerful Dell blades with more memory and processor cores. He also planned to include EMC SAN storage in the technology refresh.

Marett, meanwhile, got in touch with a VMware contact and, in a bit of serendipity, found that he had moved from VMware to Nutanix. After that reconnection, Marett attended the VMworld conference in late August 2012, where he learned more about the Nutanix converged infrastructure technology. He decided its Virtual Computing Platform was the way to go with the VDI infrastructure upgrade.

The Virtual Computing Platform consists of hardware/software appliances, or blocks, which converge compute and storage into a single tier. A block consists of one to four nodes. Each node runs an industry-standard hypervisor such as VMware’s ESXi, open source KVM, or Microsoft’s Hyper-V as well as the Nutanix Controller VM. The latter serves the read/write I/Os and controls the local hard disk drive and flash drive resources. It also communicates with all other controller VMs that are clustered together for redundancy, Nutanix noted.

According to Nutanix, 57 agencies have deployed its platform including the Departments of Agriculture, Energy, Health and Human Services and Justice. The company also counts Department of Defense service branches and intelligence agencies among its customers.

Key benefits

At PEO Aviation, the Nutanix deployment has provided a number of benefits. Marett said the ability to order one piece of technology instead of two helps streamline the procurement cycle. “That is a big plus,” he said.

The systems also helped shrink the organization’s technology footprint. The original plan to install separate server and storage units would have nearly filled an entire rack, Marett said. But he discovered that the Nutanix gear could support the same number of virtual desktops in about 4U of rack space, about 10 percent of a full-size rack.

The company noted in a briefing that rack space becomes a problem in eight of 10 virtualization projects. Real cost and opportunity cost -- reduced space for cubicles and offices -- are the two aspects of that problem, according to Nutanix.

Converged infrastructure also provides some administrative simplification. Marett noted that a system admin can set up the Nutanix appliances, so he doesn’t have to pull a storage admin from other tasks.

On the operations side, the Nutanix appliances have delivered a “night and day” performance boost compared with the capabilities of the pilot’s initial set of servers and storage, Marett said. He noted one caveat, however: the original Dell blades were not high-end machines.

And while the Nutanix products displaced what would have been the VDI storage tier, the EMC SAN storage wasn’t forgotten. It has been repurposed for off-site continuity of operations,  Marett said.

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