Making the Case for Hyperconvergence: HPE SimpliVity vs Nutanix for IT Capacity, Flexibility, and Efficiency
Community banking is about building personal connections. You want your customers to come in and say, "Here's what I need. Can you help me?" and you want them to have that same friendly experience when they go online. While smaller banks don’t have the IT budget of a Wells Fargo or Bank of America, we can provide the same caliber digital services as the major players.
As CTO and Senior Vice-President of Altamaha Bank and Trust, it’s my job to find the right balance between technology and customer service, and do so within the budget available to a smaller, people-driven financial organization such as ours. I realize that the newest tech and flashing lights often get attention, but finding a solution that combines cost, value, and ease of use—while meeting your business objectives—is the way to go.
Altamaha can trace its history back to 1946, when Milton and Wallace Brogdon started a private bank in nearby Uvalda, Georgia. This entity evolved in the Brogdon State Bank and was sold to a group of local investors when Milton retired in 1972.
We now operate four locations in Uvalda, Hazlehurst, and Vidalia. With assets of $170 million, we very much remain a community bank that directly serves the needs of residents and businesses.
I came to Altamaha in 2014 after five years at a regional bank that absorbed my previous employer in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. I wanted to go back to a smaller financial institution that had a true community focus, and I found that at Altamaha.
The Online Customer Service Gap
When I took the job of CTO, I realized our technology was years behind and we had a lot of work to catch up to our competitors. We were running Windows Server 2003 on physical servers and backing up to removable disks that had to be driven offsite. There was no way we could move ahead with our existing equipment, and it was my job to find a suitable upgrade path and to get it approved by our board.
At my previous position, we had moved our IT infrastructure from a traditional server environment to Cisco UCS, NetApp storage, and ExaGrid backup appliances. This was the early days of disparate equipment being put into a single cabinet and calling it “converged.” It was still the same old problem of managing multiple vendors, configuration nightmares, and trying to figure out whose problem it was when things went wrong.
The backup process with ExaGrid didn’t fix our backup window issues either. The units did a post process to de-duplicate the data and this often ran into the next day’s backup window causing more delays. Plus, it took forever to restore a backup in the event of a crisis. It was an all-in-one system that wasn't. The pieces fit together—sort of—but it took a lot of care and feeding to make everything function smoothly.
Looking back at this experience, I knew I was not going to repeat that decision again at Altamaha. We needed a solution that was designed from the start for performance, ease of configuration, and management, with a backup system built in that really worked. A truly “set it and forget it” system that would not require my team to neglect our main job of deploying bank services and helping customers.
The Path Forward: Hyperconvergence
I knew the answer was hyperconvergence, but it was still a very young technology with not many players and at face value looked expensive. I went to the board, laid out my plan to move us forward with a foundation that allowed us to compete, along with the value proposition of this new technology. They understood and approved the project.
This was back in September of 2014 and at the time the two clear leaders were Nutanix and HPE SimpliVity. Cisco had yet to unveil Hyperflex, and VMware’s EVO:RAIL was not fully developed for what I needed. I have to confess that my initial choice was Nutanix. They were the most mature solution at that point. They were first out of the gate in 2009, and I'd pitched them—unsuccessfully—to my previous employer. I liked their technology, and I knew how it worked, but to complete my due diligence I decided to check out HPE SimpliVity.
Once I dug into the architecture, capabilities, and performance of SimpliVity (prior to the HPE acquisition), it was obvious this was the solution I had been looking for. The cost was going to be less, so there was no need for another round of budget approvals. I went back to our CFO to let him know we were changing vendors, reducing costs, and getting an even better solution.
The Five Key Benefits of HPE SimpliVity
The first advantage was scalability. I could start smaller with HPE SimpliVity. I needed two nodes in our production environment, and one at our DR datacenter to get going. With Nutanix, the minimum spend at either end was two appliances comprising six blades. This HPE SimpliVity 2+1 configuration was the way to go.
The second advantage was on-the-fly compression and deduplication. HPE SimpliVity did all of this upfront. Backups were faster and disk performance was boosted. With Nutanix, you physically wrote out the data and deduped it later and paid a penalty with disk writes.
The third benefit was nimble disaster recovery. Built-in backup managed through policies that allowed for backups every 30 minutes if needed, and they could be sent directly to our DR site. Those same backups restored in minutes versus hours, which meant we could recover critical application servers in a fraction of the time we were used to.
The final consideration was a single pane of glass for management. We were replacing our physical servers with virtual infrastructure running on VMware, and moving from Windows Server 2003 to Server 2012. That was going to be a big training task for my team.
The good news was that HPE SimpliVity is managed within the same vSphere interface they would use for the virtual machines. As a result, I could teach them a single interface and, along with the new virtual machine skills, have them up to speed much quicker. With all the HPE SimpliVity functions like storage creation, backup and recovery, and virtual machine creation simplified, my team—who had never worked with a virtual environment—quickly mastered those skills.
The Setup and Migration Process
We took delivery of our first HPE SimpliVity nodes in December of 2014. That was the 2+1 configuration I mentioned earlier. We unpacked and cabled up everything following the deployment instructions that came on the quick start guide with the hardware. After setting the address structure for the “Federation” and a few other configurations, launched the startup process and within 2 hours we were up and running. Much easier than I had ever expected.
One of the first things I did was test the recovery capabilities of the environment. One selling point was that all data is written to two nodes, so I could lose one node and its virtual machines would recover on the second node. I launched a series of test workloads on one of the nodes, and then I physically pulled the power plug. Within 30 seconds, virtual machines began to recover on the surviving node, and within two minutes, everything was running normally. The marketing hype was true.
Over the next few months, we migrated everything from our old infrastructure. We started with the least critical systems and worked our way up to our teller platform, which also handles our document imaging and reporting system.
Once we were sure we had a good grip on everything, we finalized the migration and powered down our legacy servers. That was in May 2015.
The Capacity to Do More with Less
Our next step was adding new workloads. We started with Citrix VDI for remote access and disaster recovery. HPE SimpliVity's high IOPS and on-the-fly deduplication allowed us to implement this platform with performance that we could not have achieved on physical servers.
We can also restore one of our 900GB production servers in less than 60 seconds. Instead of getting media from an off-site vault, I log into our +1 DR site, select the backup to recover and key in a couple of DNS changes. Our recovery tests we conduct quarterly validate this each time. I feel safe knowing that we can bring back our most mission-critical systems.
But what does it mean when you add up all the efficiencies we’ve achieved? If I could put a number on it, I'd say we went from spending 40% of our time on IT infrastructure management to less than 5%. With significantly more time back in our schedules, we can now shift our efforts to IT projects that focus on customer service.
Making the Case for HCI
A challenge in banking is keeping up with how customers banking preferences have changed and are somewhat generational. Our established customers still come into the branch, but millennials are accustomed to a digital experience using whatever app can satisfy their need. Apple just issued a credit card, and who knows how long we have before Amazon moves into banking. If we're going to attract and keep young customers, we have to be nimble and step up our digital game. Building the community bank of tomorrow requires a solid foundation, and Altamaha can do that with HPE SimpliVity.
HPE SimpliVity packs a lot more punch than traditional storage/compute modules, and on the surface is more expensive until you fully account for all the features, equipment it replaces, and the time savings your staff will get back.
Your executive team may look at an HPE SimpliVity node and see another box, but they might not grasp its potential because they don't understand IT. If you’re looking to make the case for hyperconvergence, you have to help your management understand the full picture. This means breaking down the total cost of ownership and showing how making that investment is going to pay dividends over the life of the equipment.
Once they understand that value HPE SimpliVity has over other solutions, they will be on your side. The move to hyperconvergence wasn’t about getting technology that was new and shiny, it was about building for our future. Now, five years after that decision, we just completed our first upgrade cycle with the HPE SimpliVity 380 server in the 2+1 configuration. It’s great hardware running SSDs with all the SimpliVity features we can depend on. With that in place, we have a firm foundation for that future and beyond.