Case Study: City of Hot Springs, Arkansas
City of Hot Springs Revamps Storage to Maximize Application Performance and Support Virtualization
Driving to a virtualized application environment, city IT planners replace legacy EMC storage with Nimble Storage high-performance arrays.
City of Hot Springs is a vibrant, progressive community in Garland County in Arkansas. Located in the Diamond Lakes region of the scenic Ouachita Mountains in central Arkansas, the City of Hot Springs is the only American city nestled within a national park. The City of Hot Springs and Garland County, Arkansas, are today enjoying the benefits of virtualizing their critical applications. But this came about after struggling with—and eventually replacing—their legacy storage arrays at municipal and county offices. For several years, Jeff Winter, information systems director for both the city and county, had coped with the legacy architecture of its diskoptimized storage arrays. "We had nowhere to go," he said.
Winter characterized it as "difficult to impossible" to accomplish his goals on legacy EMC arrays at city and county offices. That's when the city and county purchased two new CS210 arrays from Nimble Storage to replace its EMC storage. "Cost drives everything a city government does. But we also needed strong technology and rich functionality. The three requirements led us to Nimble."
The City and County IT operations support a rich mix of virtualized applications ranging from Microsoft Exchange to Microsoft SQL Server, Oracle databases, Citrix Presentation Server, Microsoft Active Directory and file serving. These applications are virtualized on VMware vSphere 5. The team also operates a small scale VDI environment using VMware View.
In the switch, Winter was able to replace a disk-based SAN with a Nimble Storage array with less raw capacity. "Because of the magic of the Nimble array, we get significantly more usable capacity. Where we had consumed 4 TB on one EMC array, after conversion we were at half that figure with Nimble."
Usable Capacity Jumps 50 Percent with Less Raw Capacity
The Nimble Storage array in the city's datacenter supports 16 server virtual machines, and hundreds of physical and several virtual desktops. The servers include virtual machines for Active Directory, Exchange, SQL, file/print sharing, Oracle, Citrix, VMware vCenter, VMware View, and other applications running on VMware ESXi. While the city and county each maintain networks, they are both joined by a fibre optic backbone. The Nimble array in the county's datacenter supports nine server VMs, 250 physical and a few virtual desktops. The servers are used for workloads such as Active Directory, Email, Microsoft SQL Server, file/print sharing, and various other applications.
Where storage management was an issue with EMC, it is a simple routine with the Nimble CS210s. "We had three very large volumes. With our legacy platform, we had to do a lot of math and planning to get the volumes to work out. That all went away in our move to Nimble. You can quickly and easily create a volume per server."
He also says that with EMC if he needed 60 GB of network storage, he would have to add 30 percent for snaps and replication. "So I would have created a 100 GB volume. With compression on the Nimble array, instead of using 60 GB, plus overhead, we use significantly less. It's amazing how well Nimble's compression works. We faced the prospect of going from a 5 TB EMC SAN with 4 TB in use, to a lower-capacity Nimble SAN. We thought we would be starting out with this thing fully utilized. But that wasn't the case. Even though the raw capacity of our Nimble arrays is less than the EMCs it as replacing, the compression and other capabilities resulted in a remarkably low storage utilization of 40-45 percent on the Nimble array on day one."
Storage Penalties Vanish
Winter says that storage performance should not lag, even with heavy application demand and the growth in both the number and individual performance of the virtualized servers.
"We had issues with our previous array. Files took some time to open. We had contention with our Exchange server. Outlook was sluggish. Even disk copies or file transfers were slow."
On the move to Nimble, all performance issues vanished. Today, for example, his team can handle VMware vMotion without any issues. "vMotion is useful for a lot of things; for example, to down a SAN or to reset settings. Where vMotion was previously not specifically a performance challenge, administering it was next to impossible. Imagine if you had a 1.5TB volume, a .5TB volume, and a 700GB server. You can't move a 700GB server to a .5TB volume! And so we were stuck."
Today, with individual volumes for each server on the Nimble arrays, he maintains a 'huge chunk' of space that's not allocated to anything. "In five minutes I can set up a 1 TB volume to handle the 700 GB server. The usefulness of the administration on the Nimble array is incredible."
No Flinching Under Heavy Workloads
If the highly varying demands of applications drive the need for new approaches to storage, Winter seems to be in a good spot. The CS210 is not only optimized for virtualization, but Nimble's "application awareness" support the varying requirements for workloads as diversified as Microsoft Exchange 2010 and Microsoft SQL Server running on VMware vSphere 5, imaging and planning programs. This helps achieve the highest possible performance for each application.
Winter has seen significant new demand for their IT infrastructure to support organic growth, additional departments and use cases. One example of growth is around their imaging workload. Planning and Code enforcement, Public Safety, Clerk's Offices and others are all trying to go paperless.
Because storage of images can quickly scale into terabytes of data, capacity is critical. The compression efficiency of his Nimble CS210 arrays has ensured that he can harness the needed capacity. Also performance is a real concern, he says. "Users need and expect images to appear in front of them upon request, and so storage performance is critical. In the move to Nimble, any concerns we had over performance disappeared."
Simplified Storage Management
"On the EMC platform, the tools for SAN management are very complex, and we didn't have the time to master them," said Winter. "The changes in manageability were immense in moving to Nimble." That was a boon to his six-person IT staff, charged with supporting around 700 staffers in the two agencies that have an aggregated $120 million budget for the city and county.
"The ease of setting up data protection, in a nutshell, makes the purchase of the Nimble arrays worth it. The performance increases, the compression—it's all great. But the reality is, we're a very small shop," Winters added. After a demonstration of the simple Nimble Storage management tool, they were sold. "Not only did the demo impress us, but the product is better than anything I had hoped for. The biggest selling factor for Nimble is the ease of administration: creating volumes, configuring replicas, and so forth. Especially in a VMware environment, because of Nimble's vCenter plug-in, supported by the power of Nimble's command console, everything is so easy."
Winter recently had to deal with a Windows VM that became corrupted in the middle of the day, during peak demand. "It would have taken a full day to recover it with our legacy architecture, but with Nimble it took less than an hour."
He also has been able to deal with issues around storage quickly. "Notification is spot-on. For example, we get assurance from notifications such as 'remaining volume is down to 15 percent,' allowing us to deal quickly with any performance issues that might arise."
He adds that VMware vSphere 5 and Windows Server 2008 make it so easy to increase the size of a volume that he can match volume size to the exact need to maximize his usable capacity. "We were overestimating and overinflating sizes on the EMC box because we lacked the tools to be more precise. But that has all gone away.";
Snapshots and Replication Sync Up for Data Protection
For the city and county, data protection was also a growing issue. "With EMC, we had effectively no data protection," said Winter. "Replication was never an option because of the overhead."
Kyle King, of nexusSTOR, a Nimble Storage value-added channel partner, stepped in, helping Winter set up data protection as a part of the overall proposed solution. The nexusSTOR team also helped to ensure smooth deployment.
Winter's team has set up data protection according to the varied requirements of each VM —whether that means hourly, daily, weekly, or monthly—to meet recovery point objectives (RPOs) and recovery time objectives (RTOs). "We're snapping and replicating our virtualized Exchange and SQL servers once an hour because of the rate of change of those servers. It's an approach that has worked beautifully for us."
With two Nimble CS210 arrays in place at city and county offices, the two arrays replicate to each other daily. "With the current architecture, we can use either datacenter to run the VMs for either organization at any time in case of a disaster recovery situation."
A third Nimble array, recently purchased by the city, is destined for an emergency management office 5 miles from the city and county offices. With plans to build a high-speed connection to that office, Winter says a mid-2013 goal is to replicate data on the original two arrays to the third array for on-the-fly replication.
Focusing on Virtualization ROI
Winter says the performance, flexibility and simplicity of the Nimble array made it the obvious choice to replace his EMC storage. "We have essentially completed the move to Nimble, and have decommissioned our legacy storage architecture. All it took was a simple operation – such as creating a virtual machine, which takes minutes – to realize that the ROI alone would make the move worthwhile. The ROI for the long term is expected to be better than other options we evaluated before moving to Nimble."
He also says that the combination of virtualization and cost-effective, easy-to-configure storage has helped him keep personnel costs in line. "There is no way we could accommodate the growth and expansion we do today with virtualization and Nimble under our previous storage architecture without heavily investing in support and services."