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VxRack Flex at the center of Medicity's SaaS cloud

Hungry for power, healthcare SaaS provider Medicity installed Dell EMC VxRack Flex rack-scale HCI for private cloud to store petabytes of data for its customer network.

With petabytes of data that often requires real-time analytics, clinical data aggregator Medicity has great needs for capacity and performance from its storage system.

That led the company to set out to build a software-defined data center, with a rack-scale hyper-converged infrastructure (HCI) at the center. Medicity installed a Dell EMC VxRack Flex all-flash system in mid-2017 to improve performance and scalability over its legacy storage, said Jerry Dennany, senior vice president of technology.

Medicity is a software-as-a-service (SaaS) provider for hospitals and healthcare information exchanges (HIEs), and has offices in Salt Lake City and Alpharetta, Ga. Its network serves more than 1,000 hospitals, 250,000 end users, and 20 regional and statewide HIEs. Through Medicity's private cloud, they have exchanged more than 10 billion clinical transactions per year.

Dennany said his data centers have 3 PB of data to support customers

"We store and analyze very large amounts of clinical data over time," he said. "We're transforming that data into a strategic asset that supports healthcare quality initiatives."

Unlike more common blade-based HCI appliances, such as Dell EMC VxRail and those from Nutanix, VxRack Flex includes up to 24 nodes in a single rack and is built specifically for petabyte-scale implementations. VxRack Flex runs on PowerEdge servers, using ScaleIO software-defined block storage and VMware virtualization.

Medicity installed 48 nodes of VxRack Flex -- 24 each in its Salt Lake City and Denver data centers -- with plans for another 24-node rack this year. The initial installation provided 1.7 TB of RAM and close to 1 PB of solid-state drives.

"What we're really seeking is high-performance I/O for large amounts of data," Dennany said.

Moving from arrays to HCI

Before switching to rack-scale HCI, Medicity used a traditional setup of Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) blade servers and Dell Compellent storage arrays. Dennany said, in late 2016, he started searching for "our next-generation data center design." He explored setting up a large Kubernetes scale-out farm to support a project built around Google's site reliability engineering concept. But Medicity instead picked the VxRack Flex because of its combination of power and storage management, Dennany said.

"The management of a Kubernetes farm is challenging," he said. "The VxRack Flex system fit right in with our strategy and needs around raw I/O performance requirements, encryption of data at rest and our move toward a software-defined data center."

Dennany said for Medicity to fill out its SaaS requirements, the company had to build its own cloud. It writes many of the applications it uses, using Microsoft SQL Server as the underlying database and Tableau software for analytics.

"Traditional clouds, such as AWS or Azure, do not offer the raw performance that we require," he said. "So, we're really big fans of the ScaleIO performance. Through testing, we found we're not able to match that performance through public clouds."

Dell EMC will juice VxRack Flex performance more by making it available on its latest 14th-generation PowerEdge server. Those systems will be available in April. Those new models will pack more flash and memory into each node, increasing IOPS, bandwidth and virtual machine support. Dennany said he looks forward to the upgrade, as he prepares to expand beyond his two racks.

"This is a project between now and probably mid-2020, and we will continue to grow onto VxRack Flex," he said. "We're excited about the performance numbers they're talking about, like more IOPS and bandwidth. These are things we are hungry for."

Database problems dealt with

While building out the VxRack Flex implementation, Medicity is migrating data off its Compellent storage to the HCI system using Always On in SQL Server to mirror databases and VMware VMotion to move applications. "We're prioritizing based on client size and performance," Dennany said. "We target migrations where needed from either a capacity or performance perspective."

He said the switch to VxRack Flex solved several storage problems for Medicity.

We're excited about the performance numbers they're talking about, like more IOPS and bandwidth. These are things we are hungry for.
Jerry Dennanysenior vice president of technology, Medicity

"On our old infrastructure, we had an application that was struggling from a performance perspective," Dennany said. "We were missing our SLAs [service-level agreements] for this customer. We moved from Compellent to VxRack Flex, and those problems immediately went away."

Part of the performance boost comes from switching from a hybrid setup with disk and flash on the Compellent to an all-flash VxRack Flex, which Dennany said brought a "night-and-day improvement." Having one tier solved another problem. Dennany said Compellent's auto-tiering to move data from hard disk to SSDs had "a lot of challenges. It would incorrectly tier, particularly while running analytics."

Dennany said the biggest challenge since switching to rack-scale HCI was adjusting to a new way of thinking about data center architecture.

"Our staff was familiar with the HPE systems with Compellent, but VxRack Flex is a new way of thinking," he said. "The disk is local to your compute, and you have to make sure it's provisioned appropriately. Redesigning our architectures required a lot of planning. It took our people some time to come up to speed."

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