Michigan county mixes data center options with reference architecture

County mixes data center options with reference architecture

Second in a series.

Government agencies have been under the gun to consolidate data centers and adopt cloud services in order to save costs and take pressure off the agency enterprise. Yet not all applications are departing for the cloud, at least at this point.

In this series

With converged IT, agencies rethink the data center

Agencies are exploring new options for reinvesting in physical infrastructure as new options open up to retool the data center and its features to the needs of government. Read more.

Cloud takes backup role as cities remake data centers

With data centers under renovation, some agencies are using the cloud to meet their disaster recovery and business continuity requirements. Read more.

Agencies set building blocks of the software-defined enterprise

As government agencies experiment with converged infrastructure, they see the outline of the future software defined data center. Read more.

Instead, many agencies are considering new approaches to building their data centers, including acquiring modular or converged systems, in order to expand their data management options.

In Oakland County, Mich., IT managers weighed these alternatives when they decided to revamp their data center to better support sharing services with other organizations. “We are architecting our data center to allow for more of those sharing opportunities to exist,” said Phil Bertolini, deputy county executive and CIO of Oakland County.

The county considered a converged infrastructure solution when it recently looked at modernizing a data center that was built in the mid-1990s. Converged infrastructure provides the convenience and manageability of an all-in-one system, a data-center-in-a-box.

But the county opted instead for a “reference architecture” plan, which will enable it to upgrade portions of its infrastructure without going through a wholesale technology replacement. A reference architecture provides a set of guidelines – a cookbook of sorts – for a solution that draws upon the outcomes of earlier implementations.

Reference architectures are generally sponsored by a group of vendors who provide the server, storage and networking ingredients, which are tested and validated to work together. Since the components are not as tightly coupled as with a converged infrastructure product, there is a greater opportunity to mix and match different hardware combinations.

In the case of Oakland County, the reference architecture helps it preserve aspects of its data center architecture while adding others. “We have a significant investment already in the data center,” said Bertolini said. “We chose to take advantage of our current investment and build around it.”

Bertolini described the county’s data center as heavily virtualized. “At one time, it was packed to the walls with equipment, but now we can hold a small event in there with the space we have,” he said.

With the first take on consolidation and virtualization in the books, the county sought to revamp its data center hardware. The county’s IT department evaluated converged infrastructure as an option, but found it to present capacity and cost issues.

Since converged solutions ship preconfigured with a certain amount of resources such as storage, Bertolini said he was concerned about investing upfront in capacity that the county may not need to consume for three or four years. In addition, vendors described a three-year replacement cycle for their data-center-in-a-box solutions.

Bertolini said he believes some of the individual infrastructure components could have a longer than three-year lifespan. “It is an expensive undertaking,” Bertolini said, noting that costs were almost twice the price of the reference architecture approach.

Chris Timms, manager of technical systems and networking for Oakland County, said the reference architecture isn’t a data center in a box, but a configuration that others have used successfully. The approach is also modular in that organizations may mix and match components.

Timms said the data center’s storage area network and networking equipment have reached end of life, but the county will keep its Dell servers. Oakland is also evaluating bids for a storage and networking solution that will work with its Dell investment. Among other things, it wants disk-based backup and a 10 gigabit backbone for improved performance between servers and on backups.

A converged solution would have replaced storage, networking and servers, but Timms noted that the county wasn’t looking to discard its computing power. The county’s plan will help it avoid throwing the technology baby out with the bathwater.

However, Oakland County’s data center renovation plan shares a few things in common with converged infrastructure: the desire to procure components all at once rather than separately and the ability to have one number to call for assistance.

Timms said the county didn’t want to write separate request for proposals for the storage and networking components. Instead, it has pursued a unified RFP, which Timms said boils down to one goal:  “We want all this stuff to work together and here is what we are after.”

Most vendors responding to the RFP offered to provide a technical account manager to handle support or a single phone line for tech help.  “A lot of vendors are moving to that, even if you are not buying a data center in a box,” Timms said. 

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