Cancer Research UK revamps its storage infrastructure

In 2010, Cancer Research UK underwent an ambitious centralisation programme, moving all of its fundraising and administrational functions into a single office in London, and consolidating all of its IT infrastructure into two co-located data centres.

As it moved to the new IT infrastructure, the charity also virtualised 95% of its servers and all of its desktops, and upgraded to Windows 7.

"It was a rather ambitious project," recalls head of infrastructure Michael Briggs. "We completed it reasonably successfully, but with a couple of knock-on effects."

The charity migrated to thin clients using VDI (virtual desktop infrastructure) in one fell swoop – when employees arrived at the new office, they found thin clients on their desks. Unfortunately, the performance of the virtual desktops left something to be desired.

"Sometimes you would be typing away and you would get a delay on the desktop," says Briggs. "We had what we nicknamed ‘the 4 o’clock slowdown’, which is when people ran reports or campaigns."

The cause of the problem was evidently the storage infrastructure, which was mostly based on legacy kit from before the move, and which was supporting all of the charity’s applications as well as the VDI.

"It became very obvious very quickly that we’d underestimated the impact of having VDI on the same storage as the applications," says Briggs. The ‘big bang’ migration to virtual desktops prevented the charity from properly forecasting the required storage capacity, he adds.

The solution was to move the virtual desktop infrastructure onto its own storage platform. "We wanted to separate out the storage processing [for VDI] so that applications and people running reports and campaigns would not impact the desktop performance."

Cancer Research UK had existing relationships with EMC and HP. Briggs eventually plumped for EMC’s VNX ‘unified storage’, but not before making sure the VNX range – launched in 2011 – was not just the Clarion storage suite it already used "with a new badge on it".

Briggs was reassured to find that there were meaningful new functions – such as ‘Flash-first’ storage tiering – but that the familiar administration interface meant storage admins knew how to use them.

The migration was relatively simple, Briggs says, as the charity took the opportunity to upgrade it virtual desktops at the same time as moving to the new storage platform. "We built the new [virtual desktop] farm on there and migrated users over a period of about two months," he explains.

Operational efficiencies

While it was prompted by an immediate need to improve VDI performance, Briggs says that the move to VNX serves the charity’s long-term storage investment strategy.

In particular, the storage tiering feature – which moves data to cheaper disks if it is not used regularly – has significantly slowed the growth of the charity’s storage costs. "The investment pretty much paid for itself in 18 months," Briggs says. "It was an easy sell, on top of improving the performance issues.

The charity – as one would expect – has a spendthrift approach to IT. Whatever Briggs saves from his IT bills in one year is cut from his budget in the next.

Nevertheless, he says, adopting the very latest storage optimisation technology has served him well. The same is true for virtualisation – Charity Research UK makes a point of adopting the latest version of VMware’s virtualisation platform, and the hardware savings have more than made up for the software costs.

"We’ve upgraded the VMware environment religiously, and yes, we get VM sprawl, because we can roll out servers much faster than when we had to physically buy them," he says. "But the operational efficiencies mean that I can provide better services with a shrinking budget."

Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media plc from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The Economist Intelligence...

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