Your IT Infrastructure Is Probably Slowing You Down. You Just Don’t Know It Yet

HPE SimpliVity

People don’t realize their systems are slow. They simply get used to the way their old equipment functions and work around its limitations. Then, when they finally try something new, they say, “Wow, I had no idea.”

This happened to me last Christmas. I bought my wife the latest iPad and took it for a spin. To my surprise, every app opened instantly. I could play games, surf the web, and watch Netflix. It was so much better than the ancient iPad 2 that I keep on the nightstand and use as an e-reader because that’s all it can do anymore. It was great when I first got it in 2011, but now it just crawls. But it didn’t really hit home until I tried the new version. 

Corporate IT is similar. People get accustomed to Outlook and Excel taking 30 seconds to load. They live with aging infrastructure and older operating systems because the hardware and software are secure “enough” and they don’t want to jeopardize mission-critical apps. Eventually, though, all this technology reaches its end of life and is no longer supported by manufacturers or vendors. At that point, there is no choice but to upgrade.

IT Serving Our Mission

That was our situation at Maryland Auto Insurance. We’ve been around since the early seventies and our mission is to keep the rate of uninsured drivers in the state as low as possible. If another carrier turns you down, we’re there to lend a helping hand. As long you have a valid driver’s license, we’ll insure you.

I believe we have an important mission. Our customers are good people who are following the rules and doing everything they can to be responsible drivers. We make sure they have the protection they need in case of an accident. It’s bad enough getting hit when you’re driving a car. It’s even worse when you—or the other driver—doesn’t have insurance. 

IT is the foundation of your business—but also its servant.

Maryland Auto Insurance operates as a quasi state-government entity but we are self-funded. From a budgetary perspective, this means we get to make decisions that are a little more cutting edge than traditional public corporations. Still, we have to be mindful of our procurement process. IT may be the foundation of this business, but we are also the company’s servant and play an important support role. We could no longer do this with our aging infrastructure.   

End-of-Life Blues

Even with our dated systems, no one was clamoring for faster infrastructure. We had plenty of hard drive space, but our storage systems were end of life and vendors no longer supported our aging HP G5 and G7 servers. For example, VMware would no longer certify their products on versions or revisions of our hardware. As we looked for new IT infrastructure, we set our sights on compatibility and reliability, but speed was a welcome bonus.

This was back in September of 2016. At the time, I was still learning about hyperconvergence and its many advantages. I could have stuck with a traditional server stack setup, but I was intrigued by the potential of hyperconverged network appliances. One of the aspects that was especially interesting was the potential for a new division of labor. I had a storage person, a network person, and server people. What if Maryland Auto Insurance simply had infrastructure people? What if we all could do more? After all, this is a very small IT shop.

Assessing Our Options

During our procurement process, we vetted several vendors, and HPE SimpliVity seemed to have a bit of an edge from the start. There were a couple of reasons for this. First, we’d been using HPE hardware for years. Secondly, I’d met the folks back when it was just SimpliVity at a trade show the previous year. That was before the HPE acquisition. I was impressed with their technology, but I held off on investing in their product because I was certain they would soon be acquired, and I didn’t want to risk being orphaned by the new owners.

Fortunately, by the time we were ready to adopt a new solution, SimpliVity was part of HPE and the product was even better because it bundled the hardware and the software. This isn’t to say that it was an automatic win for HPE SimpliVity. We did our due diligence, and we talked to all the potential vendors, but in the end, HPE SimpliVity stood out.

We ran labs with several different solutions. We asked for physical access to providers’ servers in their data centers, and for remote access through virtualization. Regardless of the setup, we looked at a few things: How many clicks did it take to accomplish a task? Was the manual easy to understand? How intuitive was the interface?

HPE SimpliVity won out because it met all of our needs. It was a single vendor solution. It was simple to configure and easy to use. When it came time for implementation, we worked with CDW as our partner because we’d never installed 10-gigabit infrastructure before, and we wanted to get it right.

End-User Approval

Once everything was deployed, my IT team and everyday users noticed a significant difference.

One of the smartest things we did was to pilot HPE SimpliVity with a diverse group of end users. We chose people who were very comfortable with IT, as well as complete novices. This allowed us to get a wide range of opinions about our new setup. I highly recommend this approach. 

Don’t run your IT pilots with only tech-savvy users. Get the full spectrum for realistic results. 

I was surprised there was little resistance. Instead of sticking to the way they’d done things for years, everyone wanted to move to the faster system right away. We had employees who weren’t part of the pilot asking to get on the new system.

We do everything with virtual desktops (VDI) around here, and the change was remarkable. Outlook and Microsoft Office loaded instantaneously, as did our underwriting and imaging applications. Multitasking was no longer a chore. People would look over their shoulders and see their co-workers in the pilot doing everything faster, and they wanted in. Just like myself with that old iPad, our end users didn’t know how bad it was. Once they saw what was possible, they realized the truth. 

A Boon for Our IT Operations Group

The adoption of HPE SimpliVity was also a boon for our IT department. I’m in charge of our operations group. We schedule nightly batch runs that used to take 3 to 4 hours. These are now down to 90 minutes or less. That's 2X to 3X faster response time to getting data to make decisions.

Someone has to monitor these processes, which we usually launch at 7 p.m. That person typically uses flextime to trade nighttime hours for shorter working days. When you consider that there are only four of us, you can imagine how often we were short-staffed. This had a tremendous impact on the entire company because our operations team runs the help desk.

Now that people don’t have to stay so late, our help desk and all our operations group activities run far more efficiently. The efficiency we’ve seen has made us rethink how we need to staff that department. Currently, that team is four people, with one retiring in December. When he retires, we no longer need to replace him because of how streamlined the work has become. That’s a full-time salary that we can invest elsewhere in the business, while still providing our end users with the same level of support. 

Slimmer Storage and Better Backups

From a storage perspective, we’ve gone down from 200 hard drives to 30 or 40 all-flash SSDs. This has nearly halved our energy consumption, and we haven’t even replaced all our old drives yet. We’ve also achieved a 5.5-to-1 dedupe and compression ratio using HPE SimpliVity’s data deduplication functionalities. A 10-to-1 ratio is possible, but we use an imaging system for a lot of our work, so every file is unique and can’t be deduplicated.

Previously, we needed almost 50 terabytes of production storage. Now, we’re using half of that.

While we’re still early in the process, we’ve already accomplished a great deal. We’ve reduced our infrastructure from seven racks to just half a rack running eight nodes. Everything runs faster and requires less management. The resulting cost reductions in hardware, power consumption, and labor mean a huge ROI. If you add up all these savings, HPE SimpliVity will have paid for itself in less than two years. I added up the savings and sent it over to our COO. He couldn’t believe what he saw. He asked, “What’s caused all of this?” It felt good telling him it was our new infrastructure.

Backups for Backups

While those numbers are incredible, I also think a lot about how much HPE SimpliVity has impacted my daily life. The real magic, as far as I’m concerned, happens in the recovery process. In the past, if we needed to restore, we had to log into a backup console and search by date and location. Often, the file we needed to restore was stored on tape offsite. We’d have to contact or page storage vendor, have them ship the tape to us the following day, and then manually restore a server. It was laborious, to say the least.

HPE SimpliVity automates backups, constantly taking snapshots of our virtual machines. If a system goes down, we can restore it in three clicks. Right-click on a machine and select "Search Backups." Right-click again on the VM in the list of backups, and then pick Restore VM and OK to restore the VM. It's simple and fast. If you’re dealing with a Windows machine, you can mount an ISO, and then simply copy over the specific file you need.

Currently, we’re looking into setting up an offsite disaster recovery data center, and doing it all with HPE SimpliVity. It’s as easy as setting up some boxes at a co-location facility and managing the process ourselves. This will happen in early 2019, and we’ll use RapidDR to help manage it all. I’m also excited about vCenter 6.7 support. We’ll be able to fully balance workloads from a storage perspective internally. Again, this is a matter of a few clicks instead of having to jump through hoop after hoop.

Staying Ahead of the Curve 

Working in our industry, it’s easy to grow complacent and stop exploring everything that’s new on the IT horizon. But looking for newer, better, and faster solutions is part of the job description. You don’t have to jump on every new trend that emerges. I recommend staying away from the bleeding edge because early adopters often get burned. If you wait until a technology has matured enough to be merely cutting edge, you’ll still be ahead of the curve, but you’ll be walking a safer path.

Stay away from the bleeding edge. The cutting edge is a safer path.

More than that, you have to stay curious. Go to trade shows. Read trade magazines. Talk to people who are smarter than you. Get your hands on the latest and greatest technology. You might not have the budget for it now, but at least you’ll know how it functions and can start to envision ways to make it work for you.

At the very least, you’ll end up more knowledgeable about IT, but you could also end up finding a solution that will dramatically improve the way you do business. When I first looked at HPE SimpliVity, I was seeking a solution to our EOL woes. I simply wanted infrastructure that was certified to work with our VMware. I knew we’d be getting faster and better—that’s the nature of technology—but Maryland Auto Insurance ended up getting so much more.