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Utility watchdog deploys all-flash SolidFire storage array

California Public Utilities Commission was stuck at about 80% server virtualization before adding all-flash SolidFire storage to remove latency problems.

After it "hit a wall" in its attempt to completely virtualize its servers, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) installed all-flash SolidFire storage to handle its most latency-sensitive applications.

The San Francisco-based CPUC regulates electric, natural gas, telecommunications, water, railroad and passenger transportation companies. The government agency set out to reduce its data center footprint by virtualization of its infrastructure six years ago, CPUC infrastructure manager Albert Fuller said.

Eventually, "I hit a wall," he said. "We were about 75 to 80 percent virtualized, and that was it. I said, 'I can't go on. There are databases that I can't really virtualize.'"

CPUC's storage performance was not good enough to virtualize its Microsoft SQL server database because of high latency. It also had a 300 virtual desktop license for VMware Horizon that was wasted because its existing infrastructure could only support around 30 desktops.

CPUC began shopping for an all-flash array in early 2015, but found it cost prohibitive from the major vendors it has used.

"We've always used legacy storage -- Dell, NetApp, we used to have EMC," Fuller said. "We had all SAS drives on them. I tried to buy flash from them, but they wanted me to pay not just my right arm, but my left arm and part of my head. We're the government; we're supposed to be frugal."

"You have to buy a new model from the big boys, because your existing unit will not support the flash you want," Fuller said.

Fuller looked at newer vendors such as SolidFire, Pure Storage and Nimble Storage. He dismissed Nimble because it uses a hybrid architecture and he wanted to "go all-flash all the way," instead of having to tier data across flash and disk.

Fuller also wanted a scale-out architecture that spreads capacity over nodes rather than a scale-up setup that uses a fixed controller system.

"Believe me, I've been beaten by scale-up," he said. "We had a major incident with an old EMC CLARiiON array that we bought from Dell. We lost one of the array [controllers]. If you lose that with scale-up, you're dead. We were down for about two weeks. So when any vendor said 'scale-up,' I said 'Heck no. No more scale-up.'"

To scale SolidFire storage arrays, customers can add 1U nodes non-disruptively to a cluster.

CPUC bought two four-node SolidFire SF2405 clusters, placing one cluster in the data center and the other in a disaster recovery site. Each cluster has around 35 TB of effective flash capacity. Fuller said he started out virtualizing SQL on the all-flash system. "That went well, performance-wise. We heard no complaints from users," he said, so his team added Horizon View virtual desktops to the SolidFire cluster next.

Fuller said he has gone from 30 virtual desktops to 80, beginning with developers, consultants and remote workers. "So far, so good," he said.

CPUC also placed its SolarWinds monitoring application on SolidFire storage, eliminating the need to do frequent reboots that plagued the app on its previous storage.

CPUC still has its NetApp and Dell EqualLogic iSCSI arrays, but Fuller said it will phase them out. He plans to buy more SolidFire storage arrays after the vendor adds NFS support to go with Fibre Channel and iSCSI block storage (CPUC currently uses iSCSI). NFS support will allow the organization to virtualize its Oracle databases, Fuller said.

"I'm excited about test driving NFS," he said.

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