No More Babysitting: Creating a More Effective IT Operation with Nutanix
People come to the Buckeye State for many reasons. Midwesterners love to visit Cedar Point amusement park in Sandusky. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland is another popular attraction for visitors from all over the country. And there is also an abundance of colleges and universities.
With about 18,000 students enrolled, the University of Akron (UA) offers more than 200 undergraduate programs, with another 100 graduate degrees. Our standout areas of study are in the fields of engineering and IT.
When it comes to IT, we practice what we preach. Our University was among the first in our area to move to hyperconverged infrastructure (HCI). It was a bet that paid off, with the IT team and campus community reaping the benefits.
Our Rocky Road to HCI
Our previous architecture was similar to that of many universities. We had some Oracle hardware and a mix of standard FlexPod type architecture. With this structure, you buy some compute, buy a large SAN, and attach everything together. This setup is fairly standard because it’s affordable and it works. However, buying all these elements separately was also very labor intensive. It required ensuring compatibility between devices and the supporting software. Every time there was an update, it could potentially change how everything works together.
We used a hypervisor, and the process of connecting, documenting, and installing one can be complicated, even for experienced professionals. And even without any issues, the setup requires many steps and a great deal of time. All of this leads to increased costs and human resources.
Eventually, we reached a point where it took too much time, effort, and knowledge to build and maintain these FlexPods. In addition, we also needed to compress our data operations. We had racks upon racks of equipment that took up too much real estate. It was time to simplify our infrastructure before things got out of hand.
A Simple Migration
I arrived at the university in 2019 with more than a decade of IT experience. One of my first tasks was to assist in our migration to Nutanix. Despite my background, I had no experience working with Nutanix. That meant I had to get up to speed quickly, so I was happy to realize that the product and company were both user friendly.
One reason we landed on Nutanix was the opportunity the new platform presented for our IT team. Why continue to expend so much time, space, and energy on maintenance when Nutanix is a much more hands-off solution that can shrink the footprint of our environment? Since I wasn't familiar with the technology, I was pleased to discover that Nutanix has a deep commitment to customer service. Even the best IT products are useless without proper instructions and installation, and the pandemic made matters worse by complicating the logistics of in-person consultations.
Fortunately, it only took a phone call to put our minds at ease for implementation and onboarding. We hired Nutanix’s professional services team to help us along the way, and they asked a lot of questions about our network and operations to better understand our needs. All we had to do was rack and stack the equipment and hook up four cables. Via screen share, the team showed us how to use the installation webpage, where we entered our information and hit “next.” Within 30 minutes, while we were off having coffee, the system handled all of the configurations. From there, we spent about an hour asking questions and engaging in a general knowledge transfer, and we were off to the races.
Honestly, the only actual work related to the migration came from adjusting our internal operations to Nutanix. Some of our technology was five or six years old, so it was ripe for a tech refresh. Within a month, however, we were so comfortable with the new infrastructure that we began to decommission our aged equipment entirely. And since we don't need as much rack space, we started to remove racks and adjust our airflow and cooling systems, which resulted in lower energy costs.
Graduating to the Software-Defined Age
When I first arrived at the University of Akron and learned they had purchased Nutanix, my first impression was that the University had a lot of money to spend. I didn't know much about Nutanix, but I knew the solution could be more expensive than options like the FlexPod. What I did not understand at the time was the value that Nutanix offers in exchange for that price.
Apart from direct money savings from using less space and energy in our data center, we also experienced a benefit with human resources. Nutanix is a much more reliable system than we had before and it’s simple to manage. Because of that, we noticed we spent a lot less time on maintenance and problem solving. People outside of IT may not have noticed a change in the service, but they definitely experienced a tech support staff with more time for other projects.
Our five-person IT team loves Nutanix because of its automation capabilities. True, FlexPods allows users to build some automation. However, someone has to manually create and maintain those features. With Nutanix, 90% of the automation is already built into the system, and because the platform manages itself, we have time to focus on other features and elements of our infrastructure.
We were finally able to focus more on our security and proactively prepare for threats. We have also spent more time handling IT functions like disaster recovery. We’ve done a great deal of long-term planning, which will put us in a more proactive position going forward.
Real-World Benefits for Campus Life
One of the best benefits of our new Nutanix system has been the way it supports our student learning environment. Because we are a technology-focused institution, many of our professors provide instruction in a hybrid format, where learning happens through classroom lectures and working within proprietary software programs. However, our labs are often not large enough to accommodate every student that needs a computer. In addition, many students have jobs, so they frequently need to use the software late at night or early in the morning, when the facility is closed.
Nutanix allows us to run Horizon View VDI, which makes the software from our local devices available via remote connections. Students can work whenever they have time from any location, which makes it easier for our students to complete their studies from the comfort of their own homes. The pandemic made this technology especially crucial as students could no longer physically enter the labs. But even as people return to campus, the ability to use the computers remotely prevents too many people from crowding the labs.
Simple Management and Support
Nutanix offers capabilities we didn't know we needed. For example, hardware-defined systems require a static approach. Software-defined solutions, on the other hand, allow you to change capacity as required. By moving to a software-defined system, we can add or remove storage nodes without spending time provisioning anything. Just like with the initial setup, each node comes with a handful of cables to connect, and the system automatically configures the changes. There is no downtime, and the process of adding storage takes less than a quarter of the time compared to before.
We made things even easier by using Nutanix Prism and the High Availability (HA) feature. Prism allows us to manage the nodes and handle things like software updates with a few clicks. We don't have to worry about how updates or changes to a node might impact the overall system, and we have complete visibility into our infrastructure. HA improves our redundancy and is great for keeping our operations running even when a particular component experiences problems. Instead of losing connection, HA automatically transfers VMs to a working node. That gives us time to complete any fixes without interrupting the work of the college.
All of this goes hand in hand with Nutanix support. We know we can always depend on Nutanix technicians for timely help. Nutanix staff is always knowledgeable about the products and willing to go the extra mile for us. If something isn’t an easy fix, they will hop onto a Webex call to walk us through the solution.
Knowing the Difference Between Cost and Value
If I could offer one piece of advice, it is to look beyond the sticker price. There are situations where the cheapest option is best, but handling the increasing demands of network infrastructure is not one of those times.
Instead, the focus should be on four selling points:
- Using Nutanix means we have said goodbye to the spaghetti setup: a room full of towers and seemingly hundreds of wires and cables. Now, each piece of equipment has two network cables and two power cords.
- The system is designed with automation in mind, which saves us a boatload of time that we would normally spend in manual operations.
- Maintenance windows are a thing of the past. We no longer need to schedule downtime to load patches or make changes.
- We’ve experienced incredible support.
Nutanix has allowed us to best utilize our small team. Now that we spend less time on the details, we have more time to provide our university community with a better IT experience. We save both time and money in the long run and have more opportunities for planning and proactive operations.