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Podcast: How UBC gained TCO advantage via flash for its EduCloud storage-as-a-service offering
(Editor's note: This podcast was recorded on Nov. 20, 2017.)
As in any large, diverse university setting, satisfying growing storage demands is key at the University of British Columbia. To better serve its user base—which includes 25 other higher education institutions in BC—Vancouver-based UBC moved its EduCloud self-service storage- and infrastructure-as-a-service offering to all-flash. The result? Better performance, lower total cost of ownership, and streamlined, safe storage that's easier to manage, according to Brent Dunington, system architect at UBC.
In this podcast, Dunington shares the university's strategy in moving to all-flash and advice for those considering it: "Make sure that you understand your requirements and what your customers are looking for first before you go out and buy it. Not everybody needs that speed, not everybody needs that performance, but it is the future and things will move there."
Dana Gardner: Welcome to the next edition of the BriefingsDirect Voice of the Customer podcast series. I’m Dana Gardner, principal analyst at Interarbor Solutions, your host and moderator for this ongoing discussion on digital transformation success stories. Stay with us now to learn how agile businesses are fending off disruption—in favor of innovation.
Our next interview explores how a storage-as-a-service offering in a university setting gains performance and lower total cost benefits by a move to all-flash storage. We’ll now learn how the University of British Columbia (UBC) has modernized its EduCloud storage service and attained both efficiency as well as better service levels for its diverse user base.
Here to help us explore new breeds of SaaS solutions is Brent Dunington, system architect at UBC in Vancouver. Welcome, Brent.
Brent Dunington: Thank you.
Brent Dunington, University of British Columbia
Gardner: How is satisfying the storage demands at a large and diverse university setting a challenge? Is there something about your users and the diverse nature of their needs that provides you with a complex requirements list?
Dunington: A university setting isn't much different than any other business. The demands are the same. UBC has about 65,000 students and about 15,000 staff. The students these days are younger kids, they all have iPhones and iPads, and they just want to push buttons and get instant results and instant gratification. And that boils down to the services that we offer.
We have to be able to offer those services, because as most people know, there are choices—and they can go somewhere else and choose those other products.
Our team is a rather small team. There are 15 members in our team, so we have to be agile, we have to be able to automate things, and we need tools that can work and fulfill those needs. So, it's just like any other business, even though it’s a university setting.
Gardner: Can you give us a sense of the scale that describes your storage requirements?
Dunington: We do SaaS. We also do infrastructure as a service (IaaS). EduCloud is a self-service IaaS product that we deliver to UBC, but we also deliver it to 25 other higher institutions in the province of British Columbia.
We have been doing IaaS for five years, and we have been very, very successful. So more people are looking to us for guidance.
Because we are not just delivering to UBC, we have to be up running and always able to deliver, because each school has different requirements. At different times of the year—because there is registration, there are exam times—these things have to be up. You can’t not be functioning during an exam and have 600 students not able to take the tests that they have been studying for. So it impacts their life, and we want to make sure that we are there and can provide the services for what they need.
Gardner: In order to maintain your service levels within those peak times, do you in your IaaS and storage services employ hybrid cloud capabilities so that you can burst? Or are you doing this all through your own data center and your own private cloud?
Dunington: We do it all on campus. British Columbia has a law that says all the data has to stay in Canada. It’s a data sovereignty law; the data can't leave the borders.
That's why EduCloud has been so successful, in my opinion, because of that option. They can just go and throw things out in the private cloud.
The public cloud providers are providing more services in Canada: Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Microsoft Azure cloud are putting data centers in Canada, which is good, and it gives people an option. Our team’s goal is to provide the services, whether it's a hybrid model or all on campus. We just want to be able to fulfill those needs.
Gardner: It sounds like the best of all worlds. You are able to give that elasticity benefit, a lot of instant service requirements met for your consumers. But you are starting to use cloud pay-as-you-go types of models and get the benefit of the public cloud model—but with the security, control, and manageability of the private clouds.
What decisions have you made about your storage underpinnings, the infrastructure that supports your SaaS cloud?
Dunington: We have a large storage footprint. For our site, it’s about 12 petabytes of storage. We realized that we weren’t meeting the needs with spinning disks. One of the problems was that we had runaway virtual workloads that would cause problems, and they would impact other services. We needed some mechanism to fix that.
We wanted to make sure that we had the ability to attain quality of service levels and control those runaway virtual machines in our footprint.
We went through the whole request for proposal (RFP) process, and all the IT infrastructure vendors responded, but we did have some guidelines that we wanted to go through. One of the things we did is present our problems and make sure that they understood what the problems were and what they were trying to solve.
And there were some minimum requirements. We do have a backup vendor of choice that they needed to merge with. And quality of service is a big thing. We wanted to make sure that we had the ability to attain quality of service levels and control those runaway virtual machines in our footprint.
Gardner: You gained more than just flash benefits when you got to flash storage, right?
Streamlined, safe, flash storage
Dunington: Yes, for sure. With an entire data center full of spinning disks, it gets to the point where the disks start to manage you; you are no longer managing the disks. And the teams out there changing drives, removing volumes around it—it becomes unwieldy. I mean, the power, the footprint, and all that starts to grow.
Also, Vancouver is in a seismic zone. We are right up against the Pacific plate, and it's a very active seismic area. Heaven forbid anything happens, but one of the requirements we had was to move the data center into the interior of the province. So that was what we did.
When we brought this new data center online, one of the decisions the team made was to move to an all-flash storage environment. We wanted to be sure that it made financial sense because it's publicly funded, and also improved the user experience, across the province.
Gardner: As you were going about your decision-making process, you had choices. What made you choose what you did? What were the deciding factors?
Dunington: There were a lot of deciding factors. There’s the technology, of being able to meet the performance and to manage the performance. One of the things was to lock down runaway virtual machines and to put performance tiers on others.
But it’s not just the technology; it's also the business part, too. The financial part had to make sense. When you are buying any storage platform, you are also buying the support team and the sales team that come with it.
Our team believes that technology is a certain piece of the pie, and the rest of it is relationship. If that relationship part doesn't work, it doesn’t matter how well the technology part works—the whole thing is going to break down.
Because software is software, hardware is hardware—it breaks, it has problems, there are limitations. And when you have to call someone, you have to depend on him or her. Even though you bought the best technology and got the best price, if it doesn't work, it doesn’t work and you need someone to call.
So those service and support issues were all wrapped up into the decision.
We chose the Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) 3PAR all-flash storage platform. We have been very happy with it. We knew the HPE team well. They came and worked with us on the server blade infrastructure, so we knew the team. The team knew how to support all of it.
We also use the HPE OneView product for provisioning, and it integrated into that all. It also supported the performance optimization tool (IT Operations Management for HPE OneView) to let us set those values, because one of the things in EduCloud is customers choose their own storage tier, and we mark the price on it. So, basically, all we would do is present that new tier as new data storage within VMware and then they would just move their workloads across non-disruptively. So it has worked really well.
The 3PAR storage piece also integrates with VMware vRealize Operations Manager. We offer that to all our clients as a portal so they can see how everything is working and they can do their own diagnostics. Because that’s the one goal we have with EduCloud, it has to be self-service. We can let the customers do it; that's what they want.
Gardner: Not that long ago people had the idea that flash was always more expensive and that they would use it for just certain use cases rather than pervasively. You have been talking in terms of a total cost of ownership reduction. So how does that work? How does the economics of this over a period of time, taking everything into consideration, benefit you all?
Economic sense at scale
Dunington: Our IT team and our management team are really good with that part. They were able to break it all down, and they found that this model would work at scale. I don’t know the numbers per se, but it made economic sense.
Spinning disks will still have a place in the data center. I don't know a year from now if an all-flash data center will make sense, because there are some records that people will throw in and never touch. But right now, with the numbers on how we worked it out, it makes sense, because we are using the standard bronze, the gold, the silver tiers, and with the tiers, it makes sense.
The 3PAR solution also has dedupe functionality and the compression that they just released. We are hoping to see how well that trends. Compression has only been around for a short period of time, so I can’t really say, but the dedupe has done really well for us.
Gardner: The technology overcomes some of the other baseline economic costs and issues, for sure.
We have talked about the technology and performance requirements. Have you been able to qualify how, from a user experience, this has been a benefit?
Dunington: The best benchmark is the adoption rate. People are using it, and there are no help desk tickets, so no one is complaining. People are using it, and we can see that everything is ramping up, and we are not getting tickets. No one is complaining about the price, the availability. Our operational team isn't complaining about it being harder to manage or that the backups aren’t working. That makes me happy.
The big picture
Gardner: Brent, maybe a word of advice to other organizations that are thinking about a similar move to private cloud SaaS. Now that you have done this, what might you advise them to do as they prepare for or evaluate a similar activity?
Dunington: Look at the full picture, look at the total cost of ownership. There’s the buying of the hardware, and there's also supporting the hardware, too. Make sure that you understand your requirements and what your customers are looking for first before you go out and buy it. Not everybody needs that speed, not everybody needs that performance, but it is the future and things will move there. We will see in a couple of years how it went.
Look at the big picture, step back. It’s just not the new shiny toy, and you might have to take a stepped approach into buying. But for us, it worked. I mean, it’s a solid platform, our team sleeps well at night, and I think our customers are really happy with it.
Gardner: This might be a little bit of a pun in the education field, but do your homework and you will benefit.
Dunington: Yes, for sure.
Gardner: We will have to leave it there. We have been exploring how a SaaS offering at a Canadian university has gained performance and lower total cost benefits by a move to all-flash storage.
And we have learned how UBC has modernized its EduCloud storage service, gained efficiency, kept their user base happy and their administrators sleeping well at night.
Please join me in thanking our guest, Brent Dunington, systems architect at UBC in Vancouver. Thank you, sir.
Dunington: Thank you.
Gardner: And a big thank you as well to our audience for joining this BriefingsDirect Voice of the Customer digital transformation success story. I’m Dana Gardner, principal analyst at Interarbor Solutions, your host for this ongoing series of Hewlett Packard Enterprise-sponsored interviews.
Thanks again for listening. Feel free to pass this on to your cohorts in your IT community, and do come back next time.
This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.