The next BriefingsDirect hyperconverged infrastructure (HCI) use case discussion explores how a New Jersey college has embarked on the time-saving, virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) modernization journey.
We will now learn how the combination of HCI and VDI makes the task of deploying and maintaining the latest end-user devices far simpler — and cheaper than ever before.
Here to explore how a new digital and data-driven culture can emerge from uniting the desktop edge with the hyper-efficient core are Tom Gillon, Director of Network and User Services at County College of Morris (CCM) in Randolph, New Jersey; Michael Gilchrist, Assistant Director of Network Systems at County College of Morris (CCM), and Felise Katz, CEO of PKA Technologies, Inc. The discussion is moderated by Dana Gardner, principal analyst at Interarbor Solutions.
Here are some excerpts:
Gardner: What are the trends driving your needs at County College of Morris to modernize and simplify your personal computer (PC) architecture?
Gillon: We need to be flexible and agile in terms of getting software to the students, when they need it, where they need it.
With physical infrastructure that really isn’t possible. So we realized that VDI was the solution to meet our goals — to get the software where the students need it, when they need it, and so that’s a top trend that got us to this point.
Gardner: And is the simplicity of VDI deployments something you are looking at universally, or is this more specific to just students?
Gillon: We are looking to deploy VDI all throughout the college: Faculty, staff, and students. We started out with a pilot of 300 units that we mostly put out in labs and in common areas for the students. But now we are replacing older PCs that the faculty and staff use as well.
Gardner: VDI has been around for a while, and for the first few years there was a lot of promise, but there was also some lag from complications in that certain apps and media wouldn’t run properly; there were network degradation issues. We’ve worked through a lot of that, but what are some of your top concerns, Michael, when it comes to some of those higher-order infrastructure performance issues that you have to conquer before you get to the proper payoff from VDI?
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Gilchrist: You want to make sure that the user experience is the same as what they would experience on a physical device, otherwise they will not accept it.
Just having the horse power — nowadays these servers are so powerful, and now you can even get graphics processing units (GPUs) in there — you can run stuff like AutoCAD or Adobe and still give the user the same experience that they would normally have on a physical device. That’s what we are finding. Pretty good so far.
Gardner: Felise, as a Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) Platinum Partner, you have been through this journey before, so you know how it was rough-and-tumble there for a while with VDI. How has that changed from your perspective at PKA Technologies?
Katz: When HPE made the acquisition of SimpliVity that was the moment that defined a huge game-changer because it enabled us, as a solution provider, to bring the right technology to CCM. That was huge.
Gardner: When you’re starting out on an IT transition, you have to keep the wings on the airplane while you’re changing the engines, or vice versa. You have to keep things going while you are doing change. Tom, how did you manage that? How did you keep your students getting their apps? How have you been able to swap things out in a way that hasn’t been disruptive?
Gillon: The beauty of VDI is that we can switch out a lab completely with thin clients in about an hour. And we didn’t realize that going in. We thought it would take us most of the day. And then when we did it, we were like, “Oh my God, we are done.” We were able to go in there first thing in the morning and knock it out before the students even came in.
That really helped us to get these devices out to where the students need them and to not be disruptive to them.
That really helped us to get these devices out to where the students need them and not be disruptive to them.
Gardner: Tom, how did it work from your perspective in terms of an orderly process? How was the support from your partners like PKA? Do you get to the point where this becomes routine?
Gillon: PKA has the expertise in this area. We worked with them previously on an Aruba wireless network deployment project, and we knew that’s who we wanted to work with, because they were professional and thorough.
Moving to the thin client systems deployments, we contacted PKA and they put together a solution that worked well for us. We had not been aware of SimpliVity combined with HPE. They determined that this would be the best path for us, and it turned out to be true. They came in and we worked with HPE, setting this up and deploying it. Michael did a lot of that work with HPE. It was very simple to do. We were surprised at how simple it was.
Gardner: Felise, as a solution partner that specializes in higher education, what’s different from working at a college campus environment from, say, a small- to medium-sized business (SMB) or another type of enterprise? Is there something specific about a college environment, such as the number of apps, the need for certain people and groups in the college to have different roles within responsibilities? How did it shake out?
Katz: That’s an interesting question. As a solution provider, as an owner of a business, we always put our best foot forward. It really doesn’t matter whether it’s an academic institution or a commercial customer, it always has to be done in the right way.
As a matter of fact, in academics it’s even more profound, and a lot more pressured, because you are dealing with students, you are dealing with faculty, and you are dealing with IT staff. Once we are in a “go” mode, we are under a lot of pressure. We have a limited time span between semesters — or vacations and holidays — where we have to be around to help them to get it up and running.
We have to make sure that the customer is enabled. And with these guys at CCM, they were so fabulous to work with. They enabled us to help them to do more with less — and that’s what the solution is all about. It’s all about simplification. It’s all about modernization. It’s all about being more efficient. And as Michael said so eloquently, it’s all about the experience for the students. That’s what we care about.
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Gardner: Michael, where are you on your VDI-enablement journey? We heard that you want to go pervasively to VDI. What have you had to put in place — in terms of servers in the HPE SimpliVity HCI case — to make that happen?
Gilchrist: So far, we have six servers in total. Three servers in each of our two data centers that we have on campus, for high redundancy. That’s going to allow us to cover our initial pilot of 300 thin clients that we are putting out there.
As far as the performance of the system goes, we are not even scratching the surface in terms of the computing or RAM available for those first 300 endpoints.
When it comes to getting more thin clients, I think we’re going to be able to initially tack on more thin clients to the initial subset of six servers. And as we grow, the beauty of SimpliVity is that we just buy another server, rack it up, and bolt it in — and that’s it. It’s just plug and play.
Gardner: In order to assess how well this solution is working, let’s learn more about CCM. It’s 50 years old. What’s this college all about?
Data-driven college transformation
Gillon: We are located in North Central New Jersey. We have an enrollment of about 8,000 students per semester; that’s for credit. We also have a lot of non-credit students coming and going as well.
As you said, we are 50-years-old, and I’ve been there almost 23 years. I was the second person hired in the IT Department.
I have seen a lot come and go, and we actually just last year inaugurated our third college president, just three presidents in 50 years. It’s a very stable environment, and it’s really a great place to work.
Gardner: I understand that you have had with this newest leadership more of a technical and digital transformation focus. Tell us how the culture of the college has changed and how that may have impacted your leaping into some of the more modern infrastructure to support VDI.
Gillon: Our new president is very data-driven. He wants data on everything, and frankly we weren’t in a position to provide that.
We also changed CIOs. Our new CIO came in about a year after the new president, and he has also a strong data background. He is more about data than technology. So, with that focus we really knew that we had to get systems in place that are capable of quick transitions, and this HCI system really did the job for us. We are looking to expand further beyond that.
Gardner: Felise, I have heard other people refer to hyperconverged infrastructure architectures like SimpliVity as a gift that keeps giving. Clearly the reason to get into this was to support the VDI, which is a difficult workload. But there are also other benefits.
The simplification from HCI has uncomplicated their capability for growth and for scale.
What have been some of the other benefits that you have been able to demonstrate to CCM that come with HCI? Is it the compression, the data storage savings, or a clear disaster recovery path that they hadn’t had before? What do you see as some of the ancillary benefits?
Katz: It’s all of the above. But to me — and I think to both Tom and Michael — it’s really the simplification, because [HCI] has uncomplicated their capability for growth and for scale.
Look, they are in a very competitive business, okay, attracting students, as Tom said. That’s tough, that’s where they have to make the difference, they have to make a difference when that student arrives on campus with his, I don’t know, how many devices, right?
One student, five devices
Gillon: It averages five now, I think.
Katz: Five devices that come on board. How do you contend with that, besides having this huge pipe for all the data and everything else that they have to enable? And then you have new ways of learning that everybody has to step up and enable. It’s not just about a classroom; it’s a whole different world. And when you’re in a rural part of New Jersey, where you’re looking to attract students, you have to make sure you are at the top of your game.
Gardner: Expectations are higher than ever, and the younger people are even more demanding because they haven’t known anything else.
Katz: Yes, just think about their Xbox, their cell phones, and more devices. It’s just a huge amount. And it’s not only for them, it’s also for your college staff.
Gardner: We can’t have a conversation about IT infrastructure without getting into the speeds and feeds a little bit. Tell us about your SimpliVity footprint, energy, maintenance, and operating costs. What has this brought to you at CCM? You have been doing this for 23 years, you know what a high-maintenance server can be like. How has this changed your perspective on keeping a full-fledged infrastructure up and running?
Ease into IT
Gillon: There are tremendous benefits, and we are seeing that. The six servers that we have put in, they are replacing a lot of other devices. If we would have gone with a different solution, we would have had a rack full of servers to contend with. With this solution, we are putting three devices in each of our server rooms to handle the load of our initial 300 VDI deployments — and hopefully more soon.
There are a lot of savings involved, such as power. A lot of our time is being saved because we are not a big shop. Besides Michael and myself, I have a network administrator, and another systems administrator — that’s it, four people. We just don’t have the time to do a lot of things we need to do — and this system solves a lot of those issues.
Gilchrist: From a resources utilization standpoint, the deduplication and compression that the SimpliVity system provides is just insane. I am logically provisioning hundreds of terabytes of information in my VMware system — and only using 1.5 terabytes physically. And just the backup and restore, it’s kind of fire and forget. You put this stuff in place and it really does do what they say. You can restore large virtual machines (VMs) in about one or two seconds and then have it back up and running in case something goes haywire. It just makes my life a lot easier.
I’m no longer having to worry about, “Well, who was my back-up vendor? Or who is my storage area network (SAN) vendor? And then there’s trying to combine all of those systems into one. Well,HPE SimpliVity just takes care of all of that. It’s a one-stop shop; it’s a no-brainer.
Gardner:All in one, Felise, is that a fair characterization?
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Katz: That is a very, very true assessment. My goal, my responsibility is to bring forward the best solution for my customers and having HPE in my corner with this is huge. It gives me the advantage to help my clients, and so we are able to put together a really great solution for CCM.
Gardner: There seems to be a natural progression with IT infrastructure adoption patterns. You move from bare metal to virtualization, then you move from virtualization to HCI, and then that puts you on a path to private cloud — and then hybrid cloud. And in doing this modernization, you get used to the programmatic approach to infrastructure, so composable infrastructure.
Do you feel that this progression is helping you modernize your organization? And where might that lead to, Tom?
Gillon: I do. With the experience we are gaining with SimpliVity, we see that this can go well beyond VDI, and we are excited about that. We are getting to a point where our current infrastructure is getting a little long in the tooth. We need to make some decisions, and right now the two of us are like, this is only decision we want to make. This is the way we are going to go.
Gardner: I have also read that VDI is like the New York of IT — if you can do it there, you can do it anywhere. So what next workloads do you have in mind? Is this enterprise resource planning (ERP), is it business apps? What?
Gillon: All of the above. We are definitely looking to put some of our server loads into the VDI world, and just the benefits that SimpliVity gives to us in terms of business continuity and redundancy, it really is a no-brainer for us.
And yes, ERP, we have our ERP system currently virtualized, and the way Michael has things set up now, it’s going to be an easy transition for us when we get to that point.
Gardner: We have talked a lot about the hardware, but we also have to factor in the software. You have been using the VMware Horizon approach to VDI and workspaces, and that’s great, but what about moving toward cloud?
Do you want to have more choice in your hypervisor? Does that set you on another path to make choices about private cloud? What comes next in terms of what you support on such a great HCI platform?
A cloudy future?
Gillon: We have decisions to make when it comes to cloud. We are doing some things in the cloud now, but there are some things we don’t want to do in the cloud. And HPE has a lot of solutions.
We recently attended a discussion with the CEO of HPE [Antonio Neri] about where they are headed, and they say hybrid is the way to go. You are going to have some on-premises workloads, you are going to have some off-premises. And that’s where we see CCM going as well.
Gardner: What advice would you give to other organizations that are maybe later in starting out with VDI? What might save them a step or two?
Get yourself a good partner because there are so many things that you don’t know about these systems.
Gillon: First thing, get yourself a good partner because there are so many things that you don’t know about these systems. And having a good partner like PKA, they brought a lot to the table. They could have easily provided a solution to us that was just a bunch of servers.
Gilchrist: Yes, they brought in the expertise. We didn’t know about SimpliVity, and once they showed us everything that it can do, we were skeptical. But it just does it. We are really happy with it, and I have to say, having a good partner is step number one.
Gardner: Felise, what recommendations do you have for organizations that are just now dipping their toe into workloads like VDI? What is it about HCI in particular that they should consider?
Look to the future
Katz: If they are looking for flexible architecture, if they are looking for the agility, to be able to make those moves down the road — and that’s where their minds are – then they really have to do the due diligence. Tom, Michael and their team did. They were able understand what their needs are, what right requirements are for them — not just for today but also going down the road to the future.
When you adopt a new architecture, you are displacing a lot of your older methodologies, too. It’s a different world, a hybrid world. You need to be able to move, and to move the workloads back and forth.
It’s a great time right now. It’s a great place to be because things are working, and they are clicking. We have the reference architectures available now to help, but it’s really first about doing their homework.
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CCM is really a great team to work with. It’s really a pleasure, and it’s a lot of fun.
And I would be remiss not to say, I have a great team. From my sales to my technical: Strategic Account Manager Angie Moncada, Systems Engineer Patrick Shelley, and Vice President of Technology Russ Chow, they were just all-in with them. That makes a huge difference when you also connect with HPE on the right solutions. So that’s really been great.
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