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With converged IT, agencies rethink the data center

First in a series.
Many government agencies are familiar with this data center drill: consolidate hardware, rollout a server virtualization strategy and experiment with cloud computing.
On paper, it’s a slam dunk: Public sector IT managers run dozens of virtual machines on a core set of physical devices, vastly reducing the server footprint and costs of the typical data center. Virtualization also improves hardware usage and creates a stepping stone toward the cloud.
It also provides options. A hardware-independent virtualized application – from simple email to an enterprise resources planning system – can readily move among an organization’s servers or migrate outwardly to the cloud. But not all applications are departing for the cloud, at least at this point.
Public safety systems and financial applications, for example, continue to live within the four walls of the government enterprise. In addition, some agencies plan to offer shared services to other government entities on a private cloud basis. And hardware remains important in such scenarios.
Accordingly, these agencies are revisiting their physical infrastructure. The result is an ongoing re-architecting of the physical data center, including servers, storage and networking, as agencies seek to harness new technologies, such as converged infrastructure, higher-speed connectivity and “software-defined” products.
In this series, we will explore four approaches to how different agencies are evaluating various data center options against their basic mission and its requirements. In doing so, agency managers are taking a close look at emerging converged infrastructure solutions as a path to a more flexible next-generation data center.
A converged infrastructure packages storage, server and networking components along with management software as a “data-center-in-a-box.” The approach has several advantages, including cutting the amount of physical hardware required. It also takes up less space in a server rack, which helps reduce power and cooling costs as well. Converged solutions also ship with a set amount of compute and storage capacity.
The Town of Newington, Conn., for example, replaced its data center hardware earlier this year with SimpliVity’s flagship product, OmniCube, a 2U converged infrastructure device that combines storage and server functions with IT data management. A 2U hardware device takes up two rack space units. A full-sized rack generally has room for 42 units. 
Paul Boutot, Newington’s chief information officer, said the town decided to change out its server and storage hardware to reduce its technology footprint, ease administration and cut costs. “The objective is to decrease the amount of time and effort needed for the support of the IT infrastructure itself,” Boutot said.
Newington’s two data centers have been virtualized for years, using VMware Inc.’s ESX server virtualization product. Boutot said the town has been on VMware since ESX 2.5.2, which was released in September 2006. The town had been running about 70 virtual machines on its infrastructure, which consisted of three ESX host servers running in each of its data centers. The servers were attached to six iSCSI storage-area network appliances and two Microsoft Windows storage appliances.
Newington replaced that lineup with four OmniCube CN-3000 systems, with two located in each data center. The OmniCube is designed to work in VMware environments, according to SimpliVity. The company describes OmniCube as a “building block” that provides storage and server capabilities along with data management features such as deduplication and compression.
With the converged infrastructure, there’s less equipment to maintain and monitor, Boutot said. The OmniCube devices also require less electrical power to operate and should also reduce heating, ventilation and air conditioning expenses. 
The converged hardware streamlines network infrastructure as well. Boutot said he needed 72 cables, 36 for each data center, to support the previous data center architecture. The new setup involves 20 cables. Each OmniCube has 4 10 gigabit Ethernet connections, while two VMware VirtualCenter servers each have a single 10 GbE connection and a 1 GbE connection.
The new infrastructure, which went into place in February, has “flattened our network a little bit more,” Boutot said.
Converged infrastructure is a market on the move. Nutanix, a San Jose, Calif.-based company that develops converged infrastructure, has seen an uptick in government interest in the technology.
Twenty-two months ago, three federal customers were using the company’s converged infrastructure in some capacity, said Dave Gwyn, a vice president in the federal division of Nutanix. The company, as of mid-June, had 82 federal customers, he said.
“Public sector IT departments definitely have converged infrastructure on their radar,” added Jesse St. Laurent, vice president of product strategy at SimpliVity.

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