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Nutanix HCI helps keep NFL's Chicago Bears in the game

The Chicago Bears' Nutanix hyper-converged clusters provide cloud-like access to coaching staples, like playbooks, schedules and scouting reports across the NFL team's facilities.

Between the Super Bowl and the start of the next regular season, National Football League clubs seek to improve through scouting, grading players, studying film and revamping their playbooks. Like with many industries, pro football teams rely on their IT infrastructure to turn those core functions into competitive advantages.

The Chicago Bears' IT staff sought to make life easier on their end users -- the team's coaching staff -- in mid-2017 by switching to hyper-converged infrastructure (HCI) from Nutanix on the eve of summer training camp. That same system will play a role in the Bears' transition to a new coaching staff in the offseason, and it will help organize its scouting information used to draft players and sign free agents.

Justin Stahl, vice president of information technology for the Bears, said his 10-person IT team supports "the entire organization -- from the football side to all of our business endeavors." The IT team handles storage, networking and security; help desk with end-user support; and it includes two developers to focus on football-related applications.

'Cloud-first club'

The Bears' mission-critical applications run on Nutanix hyper-HCI. There is a Nutanix HCI cluster at headquarters and another Nutanix cluster at the team's training camp 70 miles away. The data on the Nutanix systems includes the club's player-scouting application, as well as Microsoft SQL Server databases, financial reporting software, practice schedules and playbooks. The team's extensive scouting video collection runs on a separate Dell EMC Isilon NAS array.

The Bears use Microsoft Office 365 for much of its business data and Amazon Web Services to host data for its scouting system. The team has signed up for the Nutanix Xi Cloud Services beta program for disaster recovery.

"We're a cloud-first club," Stahl said. "Where there's a SaaS model for anything we invest in, we look to that first."

The Bears use Nutanix HCI clusters as part of a private cloud setup to share information between its Halas Hall club headquarters in Lake Forest, Ill., and its Olivet Nazarene University (ONU) training camp in Bourbonnais, Ill.

Jignesh Patel, the team's manager for infrastructure and storage, said the Bears set out in early 2017 to replace its traditional architecture, which consisted of aging Dell EMC VNX storage and Cisco servers.

"Those systems were overprovisioned and overallocated as far as memory and storage," Patel said. "It was time for a change. We could scale a lot quicker and easier with hyper-convergence."

"IT had historically been a bottleneck in terms of those resources," Stahl said. "It was time to refresh for the scalability to meet demands for the football side and for any business growth."

Patel said the Bears considered Nutanix and its early HCI rival, SimpliVity. Hewlett Packard Enterprise had recently acquired SimpliVity, and HPE seemed like a rookie in HCI to the Bears' IT team. And where SimpliVity supported only VMware's hypervisor, Nutanix HCI provided a triple option with VMware, Microsoft Hyper-V and its own KVM-based AHV hypervisor.

HPE was still trying to figure out the game, how they were going to integrate SimpliVity. Nutanix already had it figured out.
Jignesh Patelmanager for infrastructure and storage, Chicago Bears

"HPE was still trying to figure out the game, how they were going to integrate SimpliVity," Patel said. "Nutanix already had it figured out. Nutanix had flexibility with different hypervisors, as well as their own hypervisor."

The Bears run a three-node Nutanix NX-1000 cluster with AHV hypervisors at training camp, with a four-node NX-3000 cluster with VMware virtualization at headquarters. Stahl said the NFL team may switch over completely from VMware to AHV in 2018 to save cost.

"It's a good opportunity to test AHV," Stahl said. "If we like the experience, we're looking at moving over completely to AHV from VMware."

The Bears installed the Nutanix HCI clusters right before training camp last summer. They replicate data between sites, preventing the need to move the entire data center before and after camp.

"It gives time back to the coaches," Stahl said. "All of our coaches have their practice schedules and playbooks on a file share. We swing that over to ONU. Those are our end users. They're using technology as a part of their day-to-day job. They're printing playbooks, printing their schedules, their scouting report and those types of things. We give them about a day on each side of training camp by letting them have access to all of that."

New tech, new coaches

Like a bunch of other NFL teams, the Bears changed their coaching staff after last season. That means the IT team has a new group of end users in 2018, led by new head coach Matt Nagy. Stahl said part of the IT team's offseason will be spent coaching the coaches on how to use the technology tools in place.

"It's a learning curve for the new coaches," he said. "We sit down with them, we talk to them about their preferences, and we'll reach out to their previous clubs on occasion to understand where they're coming from. We give them a basic tutorial on how we operate here, where things are located and how we can provide what they need."

The IT team sized its initial Nutanix resources to last from three to five years, projecting capacity growth that may be required if the team moves some 4K video resolution files onto the appliances. The tech refresh will also support the club through a planned 162,500-square-foot expansion of Halas Hall, with construction set to start in March 2018.

Patel said one of the Nutanix selling points was easy scalability if the club needs more capacity or compute. "If the need is there and we have to scale, it's plug and play with Nutanix," he said.

One factor that may cause the need to scale is expanded use of tracking devices the NFL uses on game day in the footballs and players' pads. Stahl said the NFL only gives teams partial access to the data now, omitting tracking data of opposing players. That diminishes the value of that information, but that would change if the league provides all the data to clubs.

"There are talks to change that," Stahl said. "We did the calculations, and if they give us access, it will be 30 TB of data flowing in every year that we can somehow process and use for competitive advantage. Now, we access that data through the NFL, but it's basically useless to us."

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