TruStack supports NCFE in business transformation


Almost a decade after they partnered for the first time, two of the North East’s most forward-thinking and flourishing organisations are looking forward to a healthy future together.

Digital business experts at TruStack have completed a transformation of IT systems at NCFE, a leading provider of educational services for more than 170 years.

TruStack was formed last year after the merger of SITS Group, PCI Services and Pivotal Networks, with SITS installing NCFE’s IT infrastructure back in 2013.

Not-for-profit organisation NCFE, which designs and certificates technical qualifications as well as offering assessment and educational technology solutions, decided to update its systems to keep pace with the organisation’s growth.

NCFE was pleased to continue its long-standing relationship with TruStack, a business which prides itself on giving clients ‘innovative solutions and expert support’.

Nick Evans, NCFE’s Information Security Manager, said: “TruStack has always supported us on our business journey. We feel that they are almost an extension of our own team.

“Our engineers trust their engineers. That respect between the organisations from an engineering level to managerial level has been born from a long-term relationship between us.”

“However, there was nothing to say that we were definitely going to go with TruStack for the project, but when it came down to it no one else could provide the same level of support and respect that we have received from them.”

“I have always felt they are not there just to make money from a client – they care. They had a vested interest in making sure the project was successful and that is what they did.”

In the past five years NCFE has seen its turnover more than double and its workforce increase from around 200 to more than 450 employees.

Security is vital to NCFE, with the organisation contributing to the success of millions of learners at all levels, in a range of sectors.

From September, it will take responsibility for delivering one of the government’s new T-Level qualifications, with five more to follow in 2021. 

Lindsey Gibson, Head of Group IT at NCFE, added: “We help learners from all walks of life to progress in their education and into employment, in line with our core purpose to ‘promote and advance learning’.

“We are firmly focused on the future and TruStack is a key partner in helping us to grow and increase our reach and impact.”

TruStack’s engineers spent eleven days planning for, and delivering, the project at NCFE’s head office at Quorum Business Park, in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, with the project going live in December.

Liam Holliday, TruStack sales manager, said: “It was a case of giving NCFE a platform to host its business applications that would last well into the future. 

“We pride ourselves on getting things right first time, and we are pleased things have turned out so well for NCFE in the latest stage of our partnership.”

He added: “We can never rest on our laurels. We see every opportunity we get like it’s a new business. 

“By treating every customer like a new customer we give ourselves the best chance possible of winning their business next time.”

TruStack works with hundreds of companies across the North East and beyond, including several of the North East’s Top 200 companies including Unipres (UK) and Vertu Motors. 

Other clients include the Natural History Museum and Collingwood Business Solutions.

TruStack has its head office on the Northumberland Business Park, Cramlington, with a branch office situated at the Evolve Business Centre, Houghton le Spring. If you are interested in finding out more, head to www.trustack.co.uk or call 0191 250 3000.

Tiers of storage – what do they mean?

Primary storage

The storage in which production workloads live. Examples include live virtual machine workloads and IO-intensive workloads – both of which are used often and need to be accessed quickly.

Example storage technologies, Dell Compellent, Dell All-Flash ME4 storage

Secondary storage

Storage in which infrequently accessed objects are held. For example, file server data that is older than a certain age, low priority virtual machines and workloads that do not require many resources.

Example storage, Dell spindle based ME4

Archive storage

Storage that does not need to be accessed regularly. For example, files that are not in use, but may be required for compliance reasons, and secondary copies of backups.

 Example storage types, Dell Data Domain storage

Cloud Native storage

Storage that conforms to the object storage policies dictated by the public cloud hyper scalers. Typically referred to as S3 compliant storage. This can be used by applications that require object storage. A typical use case is as a secondary target for backup data.

Example storage type, Dell ECS storage

Sizing of the storage depends on the engagement and what it’s for.

Typically, it’s for a VMware infrastructure refresh or backup target storage.

The key thing we need to identify is the characteristics of the workloads that will sit on disk.

By this I mean, we need to know the block sizes of the workloads, how much data there is, the average change rate of data and the read/write profile of the data.

To do this, we can use a couple of tools. These include Dell Live Optics which captures that information from a server environment, or, we can use Veeam ONE to monitor change rates for backup sizing.

In particular, if it is for backup storage, we need to know how many copies of the data we need to retain and for how long. Recovery Time Objective will come into play here, as well. If RTO is quite long, then we could look at some slower or archive storage to host backups.

The main problem people come to us with are complaints of slow performance. Following the exercises detailed above, we can pinpoint where any bottlenecks are in the environment. It is not always a storage constraint; it might be CPU or memory, or just misconfiguration of something.

This is where we can add value. We don’t throw something new and shiny at the problem in the hopes that it goes away – we study and analyse the problem and come up with the correct resolution.

HCI Total cost of ownership

Over the last decade, Hyper Converged Infrastructure (HCI) systems, such as Dell’s VxRail, have become established proven technologies.

The 2018 IDC report figures suggest Dells VxRail provides 56% Faster IT service delivery, 489% Five-year ROI and 60% More efficient IT teams.

However, in a crowded marketplace, filled with a growing mix of technologies that are fighting for IT departments’ attention for on-premise, hybrid and cloud solutions, procurement decisions to refresh, or build-on, current technology stacks are rapidly becoming is vastly extended.

No longer is there one easily identifiable, fit-for purpose solution. Boards and IT Departments are working though huge reams of technical information, webinars, demos and proof of concepts (POC) to identify what would be best solution for the business – often over 12 months ahead of time.

As with any purchase, there are various stakeholders’ voices also competing for airtime. The CFO requires the right cost and cost model, the CTO wants the optimal tech, the CIO wants the best security with lowest risk, the IT manager wants the best technology they understand, and End Users want the best experience for their day-to-day needs.

With all of this complexity, in an ever-changing business environment, when does the adoption of Hyper-Converged Infrastructure make business sense?

Defining factors for total cost of ownership (TCO) of Hyper-converged infrastructure (HCI)

When are you implementing HCI?:

  • HCI usually replaces traditional hosts, networking and shared storage solutions – often referred to as a Converged Infrastructure or three-tier architecture (storage, networking, compute). Therefore, the ideal solution is to implement HCI when the current infrastructure is all at the end of their useable lifecycles, or when implementing HCI as an additional infrastructure for a requirement your current system can’t deliver. 
  • However, if your current infrastructure is not due for a refresh at the same time, the first consideration is, does HCI replace all technology which is no longer required, can it deliver tangible value to the business and does it still have a leasing overhead, warranty cost, locked in support contract or similar.
  • If they are all at end of life, or if it is for a new project, you start on a like-for-like TCO basis. If not, there is a cost to consider for what you are leaving behind and their associated costs.

Support costs – a single point of support for all software and hardware?

  • Organisations usually have hardware support through one or more providers, covering the multiple technologies HCI could replace.  Each one of these will have their own cost and will be backed by skilled support engineers. This could reduce as you now only have one technology and less hardware to support.

Warranty costs – single vendor, single technology, single warranty?

  • Quite simply, you could be replacing multiple warranties all with different SLA’s – for example, 24/7/365 4-hour to 9-5 NBD to a single consolidated warranty included as part of the initial purchase. This will reduce time receiving multiple quotes, processing different renewals and managing the support when required.

Timing-based factors – can you really free up time?

Many of the costs of Total Cost of Ownership are created by the potentially free time, which can be utilised elsewhere – but why and what does it really mean?

Time for management:

As HCI reduces your ‘stack’, all with their own management platforms, upgrade requirements and unique characteristics to a single infrastructure with a single platform. This results in less passwords, less multi system knowledge and one single platform to use in order to optimize infrastructure operations and use actionable insights and analytics.

Edge deployments to local branch offices can be centrally-managed under the same platform. This could reduce need for on-site IT personnel with more direct control from the central team.

Time for upgrades:

VxRail HCI automates upgrades from one known good state to the next, simplifying operations while reducing risk. This minimises downtime with bad patches or patching multiple hosts and storage running through downtime on each.

Time for implementation

Professional services for implementing a converged infrastructure or three-tier architecture (storage, networking, compute), each with their own unique install approach, migration process and timing, could cost more than a single VxRail HCI device.

Space and power – ‘to infinity and a bill?’

Space is at a premium in the data centre, especially when you may pay for rack space through a provider. A migration to HCI may reduce your datacentre footprint. Ultimately, this costs less in space and power. This is, of course, subject to what HCI is replacing or being compared to, how much space it takes and how much power it needs.

Cheaper graphics with better performance?

Dell VxRail can be a good fit for Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI). Under none VDI models, you could be paying to roll out high end graphics cards to each end user device to run AutoCad or similar.  A product like Dell VxRail for VDI can provide high performance scaling and virtual graphics and compute, with 2x graphics acceleration performance and 50% more users per board, centralising GPU cost which may be cheaper and have better performance.

Are all of the Total Cost of Ownerships positive?

Does it really replace all of the tech?

Yes, HCI could replace all of your shared storage and servers. However, for many organisations, the existing stack won’t just disappear. They may also choose to keep their hosts and storage as a backup targets or as a disaster recovery solution. Of course, some of these are additional value to what your business already has, but they may not remove the devices or their associated cost base.

Licencing:

Don’t always believe your licencing costs will go down just because you are consolidating equipment.

With traditional converged infrastructure, you may have previously operated with two or three hosts running your virtualised environment. However, with HCI, you may actually need additional hyper converged nodes and higher capacity processors as they are now doing more to give you the required performance.

Performance upgrades (RAM and Processing power):

Getting the right size device early on is critical, ensuring it delivers the performance and enables recommended growth overhead based on planned projects.

Ram and processors usually mirror across all nodes in the cluster to manage your virtual machines (VM’s) and storage. What previously may have RAM upgrade for one host, which is was delivering a RAM intensive VM, quickly becomes an across the board RAM upgrade on all nodes.

Alternatively, you can add another node to upgrade which will load balance, which will incur cost and licencing etc.

In summary, it really depends on each individual business case as to if HCI offers better total cost of ownership. Things to ask yourself are:

  • Are you ready to refresh all EOL kit or taking on a new project?
  • Are you paying for a big stack of technology?
  • Are you burning time on management?
  • Are you paying for staff to manage at branch offices?
  • Are you paying multiple support vendors?
  • Are you losing time dealing with warranty renewals?
  • Is your current stack delivering poor performance?

For an open and trusted conversation about whether or not VxRail HCI is right for you, then get in touch today

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