Lancaster University looks to VMware upgrades to provide agility in uncertain times

Martin Banks Profile picture for user mbanks June 2, 2020
Agility is crucial in such uncertain times - a consistent backdrop to Lancaster University's recent VMware upgrade and expansion.

lancaster uni
(Lancaster University )

Adapt and survive, both at speed and within a budget, is more than ever the problem that all organizations now face given the current pandemic. For UK organizations, add  the largely still unpredictable challenges of Brexit into the mix and being able to adapt quickly and be confident of managing the trick, is crucial.

That essentially sums up the world facing Dr Matt Storey, Head of Storage and Virtualization at Lancaster University, as he helps plot a path through what is now a highly unpredictable world. The university has been a VMware user for a good while, being fully built around its technology for the last four years without regrets. That is, in practice, an important observation because, when it came to upgrading and expanding its operations within a budget, it made VMware Storey’s obvious first port of call.

The UK university was already an NSX user, so the next step up was to vSAN, which Storey describes as a `leap of faith’:

It was our transition from an ageing platform, a classic SAN VMware model, and move into the vSAN environment. There’s a learning curve with that, because it is different. It’s got a lot of flexibility in there, and a lot of bits that you need to get used to moving around in subtly different ways. Understanding the technology a bit better before jumping in would certainly be my prime piece of advice there.

Having stuck with the transition, however, he now seems more than content with the result. The range of tools that it provides, learned as his team has got into the lifetime of the product, has gone down well, such as the Hands-on Labs which he finds good for dipping into and experimenting without causing damage. This was useful because vSAN is quite different from the classic SAN world of fibre channel and iSCSI and he was dealing with the university’s corporate IT systems, he explains: 

You need to make sure that environment is right before you get going into the layers above the SAN parts. You need to make sure the environment is capable of taking that next generation.

Exploiting vSAN’s free stuff

Now it is established as part of the corporate IT estate, the vSAN technology has added a lot of flexibility, plus a performance boost. It also provides what Storey sees as real wins in DR/business continuity, because it allows them to replicate between its two sites without the need for lengthy configuration. He has found that his team can use the DR system for tasks like pre-emptive maintenance or re-configuration, where the DR system becomes a tool to move workloads around so that they can do the maintenance or update work that is required. Previously, such tasks had required a fair degree of hand engineering. 

The other advantage is that, while there are some dedicated, expensive tools available for such tasks, Storey was delighted to find that vSAN gave him these capabilities out of the box:

One of the major attractions was the ability to ‘stretch a cluster’ between multiple sites and produce failover domains from one data center to another seamlessly, in the background. You get good hardware integration coupled with pro-active fail out as well, which means the hardware and software looks after themselves. And you get that all from the same product.

The IT estate is used by both students and staff at the university, and vSAN helps to give it protection from the inevitable errors – and the experimentation, sport and adventure - often found with students using computers. encompassing teaching, administration and research. It is currently an on-premise environment. However, a lot of the services that surround it are cloud based, with Storey targeting best of breed services wherever possible, such those from Microsoft Azure and Amazon. The university is, for example, working with the latter on voice projects using Alexa technology, allowing staff and students to interact about certain information from the university. That is based around a university-developed application called ‘iLancaster’, a mobile app for staff and students. 

In addition, while it is not targeting a hybrid environment which would include sharing workloads between on premise and cloud services, Storey does say it could be a possibility in the future. It is also a development that VMware, through partnerships with Amazon and Microsoft, would be well-placed to assist with, not least by allowing the team to work with their existing VMware skills:

There’s a number of factors involved in that decision, price being one of them. We have a number of campuses around the world, and sometimes it’s beneficial to move workloads closer to them. At the moment, that’s a very small amount of what we do, but as that volume grows the hyper-cloud providers, the Amazons and Microsofts of this world, are much more interesting to us. But we haven’t quite reached the threshold that makes the investment worthwhile. 

Coping with pandemic unknowns...and Brexit

The vSAN environment is also proving useful in the current situation, where the university had remote working for staff and remote education for students thrust upon it. Storey admits this has been a challenge, but his team has been exploiting VMware VI to provide labs to the students, most of which are now scattered around the world. Storey indicates that the toolset  has made it much easier to spin up bespoke environments, both for teaching and for research:

That has meant that we’ve had to beef up our security, we’ve had to start monitoring an awful lot more, and with the toolset that you get from NSX, underpinned by the vSAN providing the engine room, we’ve been able to spin up large-ish environments for different research projects. We’ve taken away from some of our on-campus resources and reallocated that into working from distance. We can do that on the fly.

This is where having a hyper-converged infrastructure has helped the team manage the rapid transfer from campus-based operations on a tightly defined network to locating resources just about anywhere over the public network. Storey acknowledges it is a challenge, but they have been able to realign the flow of information without being physically inside of the data centers. He is also confident that, should it be needed, they can also layer on cloud resources.

This also gives him confidence that the university will also be able to handle any Brexit-induced challenges that may be coming along at the end of the year. He is confident they will be able to bring in new services, adopt different ways of working, provide different conference facilities, or any other change that might creep out of the woodwork.

Further out, Storey also sees the possibility of becoming more edge computing oriented, which he sees as one of several possible directions of travel. One that is high on the list is the use of containers. He sees such workloads potentially giving the university the flexibility to use natively both cloud and on-premise facilities, and he sees the VMware relationship possibly continuing through use of Tanzu project technology:

We’re mindful that the cloud is undoubtedly going to play a much bigger roll in what we’re up to, but we’re also mindful that IoT is growing and we need to think about all the layers that are involved in that; particularly the security and the networking. We’re also very focussed on enabling our developers and our teams to work with the modern tools that they want to work with. We don’t want to be a blocker to that development.

He is expecting containerised IoT and edge computing developments to stretch the scope and range of teaching services and subjects the university can provide using the VMware resources. Not only will it allow them to become more business-like in the management of services and security but they will also be able to use containers to become more efficient and ‘industrial’ in the provision of teaching resources for the students, no matter where they are in the world:

Because we can control the environment, we can ‘cookie-cutter’ these out. So once we’ve created them for one student, we can create them for ten.

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