‘Data center in a box’ could ease virtual computing

Virtualizing software can prove expensive for schools.

Managing a virtual computing environment can be challenging for school technology departments, which traditionally have had to buy separate servers and software and then piece everything together—often with a limited budget and staffing.

Now, a new disruptive technology aims to help schools and other organizations cut costs and streamline the deployment of virtual computing by combining servers, storage, and virtualization in a single box.

The new product, HC3 from Scale Computing, converges all of these elements—servers, storage, and virtualization software—in one stack. Currently in beta testing and expected to be released later this summer, the product reportedly will enable school technology staff to set up and provision multiple virtual machines and assign software, memory, and storage from a single, eRate-eligible device.

As educators become more dependent on systems such as gradebook software and online assessments, any failure of those systems can cripple a school’s function.

To safeguard against losing important data, school technology departments often set up multiple server systems so that if one server fails, all the information it contains will move over to another server.

But more data requires more servers, and more servers come with increased maintenance needs.

If schools need additional horsepower to run more virtual systems, they can add another HC3 node into the cluster without breaking the sense of managing a single-server system.

By using an average cluster size of four to eight nodes for about 50 to 100 virtual machines, schools can ensure their applications run faster and host more applications.

Even if any server fails, information on the server will move to other parts of the system without requiring manual maintenance, Scale Computing claims.

“Instead of adding more virtualization servers, [if] I don’t have capacity in my HC3 cluster, I just add another node. I don’t have another set of hardware that I’ve got to monitor,” said Brian Beck, chief technology officer for the Greater Educational Opportunities Foundation charter schools in Indianapolis and another beta tester.

Ordinarily, schools must purchase multiple servers, storage devices, and virtualization software separately. But because each HC3 node contains all of these components in a single device, schools can see savings of 50 percent or more, depending on the size of the deployment, Scale Computing says.

A basic four-node cluster, with three years of 24-7 customer support, virtualization software licensing, and replication capabilities, would cost around $30,000. Buying those parts piece by piece could cost about $75,000, said Jeff Ready, CEO of Scale Computing.

With the HC3 system, “you’ve collapsed the architecture, and you get something more resilient and more portable. So if something fails, you’re not adding another box,” said Jefferson Davis, technology and information systems manager for Standard School District in Bakersfield, Calif., and a beta tester for the product.

He noted that schools not only save money because they don’t need to buy as many components, but “on top of it, the ease of management of that deployment goes up by orders of magnitude.”

Because HC3 runs multiple servers but only requires the administration responsibilities of a single-server network, “you don’t need to hire people; you don’t need to take classes; you don’t need to become an expert in virtualization technology, storage subsystems, and clustering,” Ready said. “You just stick to IT fundamentals that any administrator knows how to do.”

From the main user interface, an IT administrator can see an overview of all the nodes in the school’s cluster. By clicking on a single node, he or she can see more detailed information about which applications that node is running and how much memory it is using.

As Scale Computing CTO Jason Collier demonstrated in an online presentation, installing and provisioning a virtual server can take under ten minutes. The newly created server goes on whichever node in the cluster has the most available RAM.

The administrator also can rearrange which applications go into which particular storage pools in the cluster.

Using the HC3 cluster “hasn’t required a huge knowledge upgrade for myself and my staff,” Beck said. “Monitoring the server is basically just an extension of the interface we’re already using.”

He added: “Normally we would log into the [storage area network] just to manage the SAN, but now I can manage the SAN or manage the virtual server. I don’t have to launch a different tool or go to a different interface.”

Now that managing his schools’ virtual infrastructure is much simpler, Beck said he and his staff can increase the amount of support they give to users, because the time it takes to manage the system has been halved.

In a standard scenario, it could take several days for a school to set up virtualization infrastructure. But to deploy an HC3 cluster, schools merely need to stack the devices on a server rack and configure an individual IP address for each node.

“Within 15 minutes of getting them racked and stacked and configured, you’re copying data on there, so you can actually start creating virtual machines,” said Collier.

Davis noted that although everyone wants to improve technology in schools, “the question is, how do we get there? How do we afford it? And how do we sustain it once we buy it? It’s kind of like nailing Jell-O to the wall.”

But with HC3, “I really believe in the technology,” he said. “It makes the architecture—for storage, for virtualization—much simpler than … what everyone else is doing.”

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