Nimble Storage reduces NCFE’s data storage space by 70%

NCFE benefits from Nimble Storage’s virtualization awareness to deliver agile working initiative

School Classroom HPe Nimbel Storage

NCFE is one of the UK’s largest regulated national Awarding Organizations, passionate about designing, developing, and certificating diverse, nationally recognized qualifications and awards. Challenge
End of the line for VDI
These qualifications contribute to the success of millions of learners at all levels, bringing them closer to fulfilling their personal goals. Annually around 600,000 learners from over 2,000 colleges, schools and training organizations choose NCFE as the Awarding Organization to help them move their
careers forward.When NCFE decided to move to larger office space, it saw a perfect opportunity to implement a more agile and cost efficient way for staff to work by deploying VDI (virtual desktop infrastructure). With the success of such an initiative being dependent on the data network naturally an evaluation as to the suitability of its entire IT network and storage infrastructure was needed.

“We have deployed 300 VDI users, improved performance, spent less time managing storage, and we have an improved business continuity plan, all at lower costs than we ever imagined.”
– Nick Evans, senior infrastructure engineer, NCFE

Enter Nick Evans, senior infrastructure engineer at NCFE whose role it was to assess the requirements, recommend a solution and implement it.

As Evans explains, “Prior to the office move NCFE had a traditional network built around VMware with 180 virtualized servers, Windows® 7 desktop PCs and a Dell EqualLogic SAN all connected with 1Gb network switches. We moved some physical SQL servers to the VMware® environment but we quickly discovered that capability restrictions on the Dell EqualLogic
SAN meant there were no real performance benefits in this change. We struggled
with low levels of compression, no deduplication and were unable to move
to 10Gb network connectivity.”

Evans had inadvertently uncovered that the current Dell EqualLogic SAN had reached the end point of its capabilities and could not be used for the important VDI deployment in the new office.

Hybrid versus flash-only arrays
NCFE scoured the market for a solution which included vendor solutions from Dell, Tintri, Violin, NetApp and Nimble Storage (a Hewlett Packard Enterprise company). As Evans explains, “I initially evaluated the various offerings without making contact with any suppliers. I knew I needed high IOPS, good compression levels, a future proofed solution that was easy to upgrade without upheaval and with a responsive SLA wrapped around it.

“After eliminating some vendors based on a comparison of our requirements and published technical specifications, I shortlisted Tintri, Violin and Nimble Storage and made contact with the vendors directly.”

A major part of the evaluation NCFE undertook was comparing SSD based flash-only solutions with Nimble Storage’s approach of leveraging the best properties of flash and disk. NCFE visited several companies who used flash-only solutions and it found no difference in performance whatsoever, yet the dedicated flash solutions were around 20 percent more expensive in capital outlay, upgrades and maintenance.

Based on the reference sites appraisals, a price-performance comparison and the speedy responsiveness NCFE decided to select Nimble Storage and procured two Nimble Storage Adaptive Flash arrays with 15TB per array.


Putting it to the test
For deploying VDI, Evans knew storage and performance were the top requirements to ensure a good user experience. He knew that throughout the day demands on the servers’ spike, especially in the morning when users simultaneously try to boot their desktops and login. NCFE worked with Nimble’s reseller to supply and set up a pilot office move.

School Classroom HPe Nimbel Storage 1
School Classroom HPe Nimbel Storage 1
This involved 30 users from the existing office connecting to the new servers and network infrastructure in the new office. “Despite the distance this performed beyond our expectations and worked flawlessly due to Nimble’s Cache Accelerated Sequential Layout (CASL™) architecture that provides adaptive performance for thin provisioning. Based on the positive results of the pilot we knew the transition from the old office to the new one would be smooth with Nimble,” says Evans.

Educated by InfoSight
During testing and after deployment NCFE discovered the storage health insights and expert recommendations InfoSight delivers. Evans enthuses, “I have physical upgrade capacity in expansion shelves but I am really happy that InfoSight informs me on suggested upgrades based on hard technical facts rather than a sales person’s view.

“For example, when compared to the old traditional disk storage, I can see that I have had a 70 percent reduction in disk space needed for my current data volume. Also, being able to see my cache utilization and capacity growth forecasts at the click of a mouse has been a real shift change for us, although we have not had to optimize or tweak the performance policies delivered
as standard.”

The entire solution has also halved the amount of support tickets logged with the Support Desk at NCFE meaning Evans and his team now have more time for proactive projects while spending less time reacting to support needs of users. None of the remaining 50 percent of support tickets have been Nimble related so Evans has had no need to contact Nimble’s support services at all.

Choosing the right partner
NCFE had already invested heavily in a virtual server infrastructure however wanted to evaluate the market place for suppliers to ensure it was still receiving the best service, not only for transactional business but for the implementation of any services.

NCFE hosted a number of meetings with various companies proposing similar solutions including the incumbent who provided the VMware vSphere® environment. After a deep level of scrutiny around SITS Group’s expertise and previous implementations it was chosen as the preferred partner.

As with many deployments SITS Group
have been involved in it was once again
up against some very tight deadlines set
by NCFE. The engagement started in June 2013 with a capacity planning exercise of
the desktop environment, which allowed Nick to accurately determine the specification of his hardware.BenefitSeamless deployment
September 2013 was the starting point of NCFE contracting people to refurbish the new office it was moving in to. There were a number of tasks including server rooms to be built, power supplies plumbed in, hardware to be racked/connected, external communications to be provisioned before SITS Group could start the main bulk of its work. With hard work, dedication and detailed planning, SITS Group was able to finish its agreed pieces of work ahead of the deadline. On the go-live date all 300 users logged on to their new system with minimal disruption.SITS Group partnered with its sister company Pivotal Networks to deliver the network aspect of this solution which included configuration of a new core 10Gb network, the provision of new edge switches over three floors with wireless access points strategically placed for the most cost effective coverage. This solution used Dell Force10 switches and Meraki wireless Access Points.
The VDI was installed on Dell M620 Blades using a M1000e chassis. SITS Group was responsible for configuring the hardware including the installation of VMware Horizon® Suite, Atlantis ILIO and Liquidware Labs suite. SITS Group was also responsible for procuring the IGEL Thin Clients to be used as
the endpoints.Nick was happy to comment: “I feel privileged to have worked alongside both SITS and Pivotal during our recent VDI deployment.
I enjoyed the openness and honesty of the two companies. I would and will definitely work with them again.”Conclusion
Evans is proud to say that Nimble Storage technology was pivotal to the success of the office relocation and VDI roll out and is now implementing new features to enhance the solution. “We didn’t use SAN replication to our DR site because we couldn’t, but as the Nimble Storage array is more virtualization-aware, we have the confidence to deploy it now.“We are also implementing an improved Recovery Point Objective (RPO) strategy using Veeam backup and Nimble snapshots which we can now take more regularly without any degradation in performance or consuming bucket loads of disk space.”


Experienced Information Technology Manager with a demonstrated history of working in the computer networking industry. Skilled in Negotiation, Business Planning, Sales, Sales Management, and IT Service Management. Strong information technology professional in Business and Computing.

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