Leading the Way in Education by Cutting Down on IT Busy Work at Middleton-Cross Plains

HPE SimpliVity

I’ve always hoped that our school district becomes a leader. My dream is that, one day, other districts look at our work and try to mimic what we do. These past few years, Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District in Middleton, Wisconsin, has put a big focus on equity.

Not equality, meaning everyone gets the same thing, but equity, which recognizes that some students are at a disadvantage and need a bigger step up to achieve success. It isn’t hard to envision IT’s role in working toward a more equitable future for our students.

As a systems engineer for Middleton-Cross Plains, it’s humbling to think that I have some influence in setting the stage for a child’s future. I want future generations to succeed beyond anything I think is possible. My job is about making sure our schools have the right IT infrastructure and that students have the educational foundation for all the amazing things they will do. Who knows? Maybe that child in elementary school will become the doctor who will one day save my life.

The problem was that we used to have a system that took too much time just maintaining it. It was a traditional setup: We kept almost all our eggs largely in one basket, and even though we did copy data to another location, we didn’t have an easy way to bring that data back online. In the event of an actual catastrophe, I knew it would take weeks—even months—to get back up and running again.

Having backups isn’t the same as having a true DR plan. In the event of a disaster, how vulnerable are you?

We also had capacity issues. We were frequently running into space and memory walls. Managing storage took up a lot of time. We had to worry about filling up different resource pools and moving VMs around to make space. It felt like a constant game of shuffling things around. 

We did traditional backups, which took a lot of time. We started backups late Friday night. They would run throughout the entire weekend and sometimes wouldn’t be finished by Monday morning. We couldn’t back up during the day, because it would impact performance and slow everything down for everyone. As a result, we couldn't perform backups as frequently as we should have.

Could we really be that launchpad for our students when all our efforts went into maintaining this cumbersome system?

Hyperconvergence: More Than a Trendy Term

All this came to a head when our storage arrays neared end of life. When we first entered the virtualization realm a decade ago, we created an upgrade ladder where we replaced roughly half the equipment every three years. It worked especially well because it was all within the same product line, but then last summer we learned the manufacturer was eliminating that line. That left us re-evaluating everything.

I’d heard about hyperconverged solutions before, but I wasn’t sure how much substance there was to it, beyond the trendy term. When I did some research into it, though, I realized this could be the solution for us. 

Being a school district, we had to go through a formal RFP. But we didn’t specify hyperconverged solutions. Instead, we said, “We want this much compute, memory, and storage, combined over a primary and secondary site.” We had to be unbiased in considering options and were curious what vendors would propose as the best solution to those specifications.

We created a matrix to grade the proposals. Of the three presentations we received, one solution rose to the top: hyperconvergence with HPE SimpliVity

We felt it would fit all our business needs: deduplication and compression, maximizing physical storage capacity, and being able to do backups natively and quickly bring those backed-up VMs online. We liked that HPE SimpliVity was split across a number of nodes—not all contained in one spot. We’re not a huge organization, but some of the other proposals presented to us were literally one rack or a couple rack spaces. We liked that in case of failure, the HPE SimpliVity option was more resilient.

On the other side of the coin, we needed a stable solution. There are terrific solutions out there, but we needed to be confident that the product purchased would last for seven years or more. We didn’t want to bet on the latest, greatest thing that had only been around for a year, because we couldn’t see into the future to know that the company would exist in two years. Would they be purchased and the product would go away? We see that all the time in IT, right? That consideration weighed our discussion toward the companies that had withstood the test of time.

It’s true HPE recently acquired SimpliVity, but we noticed HPE investing a significant amount into developing the product to make it even better and provide more granular backups. This product has the brand of HPE behind it and the resources of HPE to improve and evolve it. It was only going to become easier to maintain and manage. We felt confident HPE SimpliVity wouldn’t go stagnant.

Don’t Do It Alone

The reseller that pitched HPE SimpliVity was a partner named PDS, who we had previously worked with on other projects, though nothing this major. Having worked with them before was reassuring. We knew they would be responsive if we ran into any trouble—that they would be there by our side. 

PDS helped manage the initial deployment, so even though HPE has a deployment process, PDS had a project manager guiding us through this as well. They were there in the office with us every step of the way.

In the weeks prior to the deployment, there were a number of well-focused phone calls where we had to answer some questions and PDS told us the tasks we had to complete. They laid out a plan with milestones and timelines, which paid off on deployment day. 

All that preparation made deployment seamless. Within a couple days, we had moved everything from our old environment to the new, and we did it all during the day, during normal production hours. I was ecstatic about not having to come into the office at midnight to get this done. We kept our old setup running for a little while, just in case, but we didn’t need to.

We appreciate PDS’s care and for understanding our goals. Even now, a year after the deployment, they check in. It’s an ongoing relationship and true partnership.

Going with a great partner made all the difference for us. I want to touch on some best practices for other educational IT departments looking for a partner. First, you want someone who understands schools. Their business should have an educational or government arm that specializes in your kind of work. Second, they have to be responsive, because you need the confidence they will be there for you when you have a problem. 

Finally, look for an organization that is honest about its strengths and weaknesses. There’s a lot to know in IT—it’s always evolving—and anyone who tells you they know everything and can do everything is not being truthful. Better to find a partner who can offer a referral on a specific question than someone who pretends they have the answer when they don’t.

Immediate Benefits—Measurable and Intangible

We’ve seen several significant improvements since implementing HPE SimpliVity a year ago. Remember my concern about how long it would take to recover under our old setup? Let’s say I delete something as I’m setting up a new system in development. With HPE SimpliVity, I can revert back in 30 seconds. It’s almost a joke how easy it is. Think about how flexible and agile that makes us as an organization.

I think about that massive step we made with virtualization a decade ago, and how that changed our game entirely. Hyperconvergence was that next logical step. 

It’s a very stable environment and it’s not separated into different products, programs, and interfaces to manage storage. I don’t have to worry about creating backups and waiting forever for a backup to happen before I can move forward with a project. To me, that’s priceless. And everything happens quickly and on one interface. All the HPE SimpliVity plug-ins are built in, meaning I can manage it all from a single pane of glass.

Our footprint is also much smaller than what we had in the past. And because of compression and deduplication, we’re able to do more with it. With HPE SimpliVity, our space requirements consolidated from 28U to 12U. We’re storing 579TB of logical data on 28TB of physical disks. Being able to keep all that metadata with such a small footprint—it’s like a magic box.

We also use Veeam, and combine the best of both the HPE SimpliVity and Veeam technologies in our environment. We use our HPE SimpliVity near-instantaneous backup and recovery for our hourly, daily, and weekly backups, and use Veeam to back up specific VMs for long-term retention on inexpensive storage.

IT flexibility isn’t just about moving fast—it’s also about the ability to roll back if things go wrong.

The speed and ease of HPE SimpliVity have freed up my time. Rather than doing all that busy work I alluded to, I no longer have to think about how to keep the systems online or if an application is running slowly. Now, I can focus on providing a service and dreaming up new IT initiatives. We can experiment in a way we never could before, because we’ve got speed on our side. And if it doesn’t work out, it’s easy to revert back.

Four Tips for Your Own Hyperconvergence Journey

For district IT departments who think this sounds great, I have a few parting words of advice. First, be strategic about when you embark on this. Our timing wasn’t random: We had a refresh coming up and knew we couldn’t move forward with the product we already had. Don’t create extra expense by jumping into this. Look forward to your normal refresh cycles and plan around that. What else are you not virtualizing now that you could bring into that new environment? What else can you do to maximize all the resources internally to justify a large purchase like this?

Second, you have to sell hyperconvergence within your school district. Start early by talking to stakeholders and defining what systems are important and how long you could go without those systems. In schools, we tend to not think like a business, but you’re building a business case here. Describe how it will affect schools if a true catastrophe hits and you don’t have proper DR.

Third, identify a partner you can trust and build a long-term relationship with over the span of the product. It’s okay that you don’t know how to implement this yourself. HPE SimpliVity has your back, and your partner is there if you have a problem.

The fourth and final advice is that a change like this has to start at the top. I need to acknowledge that a big part of our success was the support of my boss, Technology Director James Bodgett. He’s very technical and comes from an educational background, and is a huge believer in what our school district is trying to do regarding equity. 

James doesn’t shut down new ideas just because he’s more comfortable with our previous approach, or no other school district has done it this way. As it turned out, HPE SimpliVity was the least expensive option from our RFP—another option was 50% more expensive—but more than that, James recognized how much further HPE SimpliVity could take our district. We share that vision of how IT can give the students who need it an extra step up. It would have been tough to drive an initiative like this without the support of James.

The word I keep returning to when trying to summarize HPE SimpliVity is frictionless. Isn’t that what a solution is supposed to be? You shouldn’t have to fiddle around and struggle to keep things running. With less time spent on maintenance, my team and I can focus our efforts elsewhere. We can start exploring the ways we can provide our students with the best learning experience out there. We can focus on equity.