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Amarillo hyper-converges IT with Dell EMC VxRail appliances

Hyper-convergence cut costs, streamlined operations and set up Amarillo to use the cloud for storage tiers, while shifting resources away from managing infrastructure.

The city of Amarillo, Texas, modernized its aging network and storage infrastructure with hyper-convergence, moving toward a goal of being able to "drag and drop and spin up services."

Rich Gagnon, CIO of the city of Amarillo, said when he moved from his previous job as vice president of systems engineering at Palo Alto Networks in 2016, he quickly noticed the difference between a private sector company and government agency. He installed Dell EMC VxRail appliances in early 2018 to relieve the burden of his aging infrastructure and take the first step toward a multi-cloud setup.

"When I came here, I had switches that still had CatOS," he said, referring to the discontinued Catalyst Operating System. "They just finished upgrading to Office 2007 from 2003. There was not a lot of movement in the last decade, and we still had a lot of manual processes. We upgraded the entire network infrastructure."

How and why Amarillo went to HCI

Under Gagnon's watch, Amarillo switched to Dell EMC N Series network switches and standardized on VxRail hyper-converged infrastructure (HCI) for storage and compute. The city has nine hyper-converged nodes for virtual desktop infrastructure, six nodes for its VMware ESXi cluster and four for its 911 and computer-aided dispatch system. All the VxRail appliances are all-flash.

Rich Gagnon, CIO, city of AmarilloRich Gagnon

Gagnon said his overhaul was driven by a desire to consolidate city departments and simplify management. His IT team of 36 people handles 46 city departments, including public safety, utilities, building safety and the local airport.

"We have 46 different internal customers, with totally different business needs," Gagnon said.

He consolidated distributed IT infrastructure into a new data center, switching from primarily a Cisco Unified Computing System shop with myriad storage platforms to VxRail appliances. Gagnon said Amarillo's storage included Nimble Storage and Dell EMC EqualLogic SAN arrays, Dell EMC Isilon NAS, and Unitrends and Dell EMC Data Domain for backup.

Migration of data continues from some of those arrays to the VxRail appliances. He will keep some dedicated storage, mainly Isilon NAS for video files. Gagnon said Isilon NAS will remain a key piece of Amarillo's infrastructure for its public safety department, which requires dedicated tiered storage.

"We landed on hyper-convergence for a number of reasons," Gagnon said. "In the beginning, it was as much of a financial exercise as a technical exercise. It's as close as plug-and-play as you can get. Also, from a resources perspective, IT talent can be hard to come by here. Hyper-convergence lets me focus my IT assets in a different way."

Gagnon said he evaluated HCI leaders Dell EMC and Nutanix. He said Dell's ownership of VMware gave him confidence in the VxRail platform, which uses VMware vSAN hyper-converged software.

"We're still in the process of replacing storage," he said. "We're upgrading all of our core operations."

Gagnon said moving from Cisco and varied storage to VxRail cut his overall cost in half, and it also allowed him to integrate functionality. His VxRail appliances run in three separate clusters, but they can all talk to each other to enable disaster recovery.

"I have a 911 call center -- we call it government continuity," he said. "In case of disaster, I may need to be able to spin up a 911 call center anywhere. I can't take down my core services to do it. Now, I can extend a cluster out into another agency data center. I can run services from a different physical location and have a network tied to it. It gives you flexibility. The dream is to drag and drop and spin up services."

Areas where Amarillo can devote more time, resources

If you don't invest in infrastructure, you start building up technical debt, and your team's time is all spent cobbling together old, broken technology and keeping that running.
Rich GagnonCIO, city of Amarillo

Gagnon said Amarillo hasn't done much in the public cloud -- "a little bit AWS, but that's it" -- but he intends to move more services to the cloud. "I had to get the fundamentals down first," he said.

He said he expects to eventually deploy multiple clouds to take advantage of different services for the needs of varied agencies.

"For example, look at our building safety operation. There are blueprints I have to keep forever, but they may be accessed once a decade," he said. "I can do that in a different way than I can store police body cam video. Even within the body camera video, it depends on the incident. Some of it will go to Isilon on site; some will go to an archive to Isilon in the cloud. And, at a certain point, we will put it in cold storage."

He said the infrastructure modernization allows his IT team to spend time doing other things besides keeping old systems running. For instance, it has used Tableau analytics with police data to cut incident response times significantly.

"If you don't invest in infrastructure, you start building up technical debt, and your team's time is all spent cobbling together old, broken technology and keeping that running," he said. "We're starting to see that clean up. People who were doing infrastructure are now doing nothing but analytics. It's already paying dividends.

"We've partnered with our police. Now, we're running analytics on simple things: Where do we get calls from? What time of day? What type of calls? What's our response times? Then, we compare that to how we're staffed. We've already cut response times by more than 50%."

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