Virtualizing Data Center with VMware and EMC Storage

Samuel L. Sanders, I.T. Manager, Surrey Bank & Trust

Samuel L. Sanders, I.T. Manager, Surrey Bank & Trust

In the Spring of 2014, we made the decision to virtualize our datacenter.  Up until then, we had always operated in a completely physical server environment. As the IT manager I felt strongly that we would benefit tremendously from virtualization.  And when we finally did, it was like upgrading from dial-up to broadband internet. There was no going back.

Up until 2014, the huge expense of virtualizing had always scared us away. The quotes I received to virtualize our critical servers were so high that it seemed a waste of time to even show it to Senior Management, let alone recommend it with a serious look on my face. But in January of that year, while speculating out a new server, it was as if a light bulb illuminated atop my head. I had recently reviewed the hardware requirements for a production hypervisor. So as I was building that server, I realized I could implement VMware myself, and do so for a lot less than we had been seeing in these 6-figure quotes. I could build it in increments, and not have to spend a fortune all at once. So in February I downloaded a trial of vSphere 5.5 and installed it on the new server I had speculated out in January.  After seeing the beauty and simplicity of ESXi, I knew we could never go back to a purely physical environment. If the cost was all that was keeping us from virtualizing, I would have spent my own money if I had to! So I started building up the resources we would need, and started drawing up a plan to sell the idea to Senior Management. 

“As the IT manager I felt strongly that we would benefit tremendously from virtualization and when we finally did, it was like upgrading from dial-up to broadband internet”

In the beginning, I did not have a clue as to the value of shared storage and iSCSI SAN (or Fibre Channel) arrays in a virtual environment. I had worked with RAID and understood Network Attached Storage, but I was still engrained in the mindset of local disk server storage, and was trying to keep a low budget, so I didn’t recommend investing in a SAN or NAS array at first. Instead, I decided to use vSphere VSA, which uses the internal storage of each host server for shared storage for VMs. This would allow us to experiment with the technology without spending a small fortune right away. Presently known as VMware vSAN, vSphere VSAwas on its way out the door at the time, and we got the license for it only days before it was discontinued. So with much excitement and anticipation, we implemented vSphere VSA on a 3 host HA Cluster. It was awesome to finally have a fully implemented virtual datacenter! But it wasn’t long before I began to experience VSA’s limitations first hand. 

This is where EMC storage came to our rescue. As far back as early 2013, well before we had begun to virtualize, several sales reps from EMC had been trying to sell us a VNXe. The reps explained how it would be a must once we started to virtualize, but I didn’t recognize just how huge a benefit it would be once we implemented VMware. So we stumbled forward with vSphere VSA. At first, the datacenter ran fairly well. Performance was good, and most importantly, everything was working. But after some DR testing, I gained a much better understanding of the limitations, instability and overall poor performance of VSA. I also soon realized we would need more storage than I had provisioned for VSA. A graduate of the School of Hard Knocks, I had earned yet another degree. The picture had become crystal-clear: I saw the value of the EMC VNXe in a major way. I was on board. 

By now I had began researching and comparing the VNXe with other products, like Dell’s EqualLogic and Compellent, and it became apparent that the VNXe was the best fit for us. Nothing against Dell; we have used Dell servers and PCs almost exclusively under my tenure. Dell’s Compellent system is very impressive, as is the EqualLogic storage platform.  But the VNXe’s design, with its RAM for data caching, the dual Intel processors, the 2.5” SFF drive array and the competitive pricing; it was hands-down the best fit for our datacenter.

It took over a month for the CEO to sign off on the VNXe quote. We continued to limp along with our VSA installation, which had production servers on it, during this time. The VSA actually crashed at one point and I had to go back to a physical datacenter for a few weeks. We suffered some down time which could have been avoided. When the new VNXe finally arrived, I was beside myself with enthusiasm. I did the design and implementation of the new VNXe myself, with some assistance from EMC technical support; which, by the way, is excellent. I added two stacked Cisco Catalyst switches, and put 2 quad port NICs in each ESXi host, in order to have a fully redundant iSCSI SAN solution.

It has been over a year since I got everything up and running on the VNXe, and we have not had any problems at all with our virtual infrastructure. With the VNXe at the core of that infrastructure, it is more stable than ever. It is truly a “set it and forget it” device. By that, I simply mean that I do not have to constantly monitor the device. It sends alerts to me any time there is an issue, such as a new software update or a hardware problem. Replacement parts, if needed, are shipped overnight at no additional cost to us. The software patches and updates are a breeze to install; EMC does an excellent job of providing instructions, and the VNXe’s GUI walks you through the process. So an admin does not need to be a Linux command-line expert to operate and maintain the VNXe.

I highly recommend VMware and EMC storage to any company that is planning to virtualize, or any company that has already virtualized but is looking to add storage, performance and stability to their datacenter. I can say without hesitation that our experience with VMware and EMC storage has been nothing short of excellent.