Online company uses NetApp FlexPod architecture to consolidate data center resources

To centralize its data center after growth through acquisition, Dominion Enterprises set up a FlexPod multitenant architecture with NetApp FAS storage, Cisco UCS and VMware.

Dominion Enterprises set up a NetApp FlexPod environment consisting of NetApp arrays, Cisco networking and servers, and VMware virtual machines to consolidate its data center for 40 business units inside the online advertising and magazine company.

Dominion runs websites such as ForRent.com and HotelCoupons.com, as well as online magazines. It has about 4,900 employees in 40 states and five countries. Dominion Enterprises Chief Architect Tom Skidmore said the company grew through acquisitions and had a decentralized IT department as a result. It began a three-year consolidation project in 2007, moving users into a new centralized data center in Norfolk, Va., on VMware.

Dominion went to the FlexPod architecture as part of that consolidation effort. It replaced older NetApp systems with newer FAS clusters and added 23 Cisco Unified Computing System (UCS) blades and more than 600 VMware vSphere and ESX virtual servers. It currently has four FAS3070 clusters, four FAS3050 clusters and two FAS3170 clusters running Fibre Channel, iSCSI and NAS.

Multitenancy, deduplication help centralize and manage data

Dominion put together its current setup before NetApp officially launched the FlexPod bundle that includes its FAS3200 last November. But Dominion uses the reference architecture that NetApp, Cisco and VMware came up with in January 2010, consisting of NetApp storage, Cisco UCS and Nexus switches, and VMware virtual machines.

“You can say we have a FlexPod,” Skidmore said. “We have all the components. We didn’t buy it like that, but we did follow the secure multitenancy blueprints out there from Cisco, NetApp and VMware. That’s a lot of what the FlexPod architecture is based on.”

FlexPod’s multitenancy features include VMware’s vShield Zones firewall, quality of service for virtual hosts in UCS, and NetApp’s MultiStore software to create virtual filers within a physical disk array.

The multitenancy capability lets Dominion segment its storage according to business units. The IT team sets up separately named pools of storage with service profiles restricted to individual businesses. That lets IT track storage use by business and gives the businesses their own storage pools.

“We’re able to slice and dice out space for individual businesses so they don’t have to come back to us or step on anybody else’s toes,” Dan Desjardins, Dominion systems engineer manager, said. “They can see only what is theirs.”

Skidmore and Desjardins said they went with FlexPod over EMC’s Vblock bundle, which also includes Cisco networking and VMware VMs, because Dominion had already used NetApp storage for close to a decade.

Skidmore’s team operates two large data centers -- the one at headquarters and one at a colocation facility -- with 1.5 full-time employees for storage. Skidmore said Dominion has close to 750 TB on his NetApp storage, and his data is growing about 25% every year “even though we’re not in a major growth cycle in our company now.”

Skidmore said he limits that growth by deduplicating data, both primary data with NetApp deduplication and secondary data with EMC Data Domain backup boxes. Skidmore said he dedupes hundreds of millions of photos Dominion stores for Web-based advertising and all VMware data. Other types of data–such as PDFs–don’t dedupe well.

“We get about 40 percent to 45 percent average reduction for the data we dedupe and about 60 percent to 70 percent for virtual machines,” Skidmore said.

Virtualization calls for better monitoring tools

Like others who have virtualized, Skidmore said he finds visibility into his SAN more of a challenge now.

“There are definitely a few more layers to go rooting through if something doesn’t work right,” he said. “We have to do more and better things with monitoring than we’re doing now to understand the infrastructure. The hard part is when somebody comes in and says, ‘It’s slow,’ because now there are a million places where it could be slow. Before, there was the server, the SAN and the array. Now it could be the VMware stack, it could the Windows stack, it could be the UCS. We’ve added more pieces to the middle of everything. Visibility to all those things is there, but it’s not easy.”

He said he recently bought the VMware Alive Enterprise performance monitoring tool and will look to add other monitoring tools.

Despite the visibility issues, Skidmore and Desjardins said the benefits of virtualization far outweigh the negatives, especially as far as their users are concerned.

“Once we put people on VMs, they love it,” Skidmore said. “After we say, ‘We’ll try putting you on a VM and see how it compares to a physical Windows or Linux box,’ everybody says, ‘It’s way better. And it’s cheaper? Bring it on.’”

Desjardins added, “More and more, it’s becoming a ‘virtualize first’ mentality around here.”

Private cloud planned

Dominion is now looking to launch a private cloud for its European operations. It recently licensed VMware vCloud Director, and some of its business units are evaluating Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) and other service providers.

“We don’t have a data center in Europe, and that’s becoming a pain point for some of our business units that have a big international footprint,” Skidmore said. “A cloud would solve that problem. We’re trying to take our business units out of the hardware business as much as possible. The reason for the cloud is, we need to get out of their way. We’re a lean IT group; we can’t be a bureaucracy. We can’t have people waiting for VMs to be deployed or a firewall to be provisioned.

“The same knowledge we need to manage the FlexPod will be needed to build a private cloud.”

This was first published in April 2011

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