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Nutanix Complete Cluster storage appliance helps insurance firm clear VDI performance obstacle

Concerns about VDI performance and price led insurance brokerage DeWitt Stern to add a Nutanix Complete Cluster storage appliance instead of an existing SAN.

When New York-based insurance brokerage DeWitt Stern considered implementing a virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) in 2011, storage was the main obstacle.

Specifically, the cost of adding enough storage to deal with performance issues worried the company’s IT team the most, according to Assistant Vice President Peter Emmel.

“At the end of the day, servers are not terribly expensive,” Emmel said. “We could’ve done VDI with a single server and then slowly incorporated additional servers for redundancy. But we still would’ve needed storage. We had to look at what it would cost storagewise.”

DeWitt Stern already had a Xiotech SAN for its primary storage, but Emmel said he wanted to keep his VDI storage separate from production storage. That led him to a VDI storage appliance.

“No matter how we did it, we would require additional storage,” he said. “Putting our VDI infrastructure on our existing server infrastructure wouldn’t be possible. It would just put too much load on our production network. If we were going to roll out VDI, we wanted to give VDI its own resources. That way if we had an issue on the VDI side, it wasn’t going to take down our production network. Conversely, if we’re doing work on production servers, we don’t want it affecting the VDI platform.”

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Emmel said he explored several options, weighing cost against performance. He chose a Nutanix Complete Cluster storage appliance because of its use of flash for performance, support for 10 Gigabit Ethernet (GbE) connectivity and price. He said DeWitt Stern is still using Gigabit Ethernet but has already purchased a 10 GbE switch from Brocade to upgrade as it adds virtual desktops.

A Nutanix Complete Cluster consists of 2U blocks, each containing four server nodes. Each node has 320 GB of Fusion-io PCIe flash, 300 GB of SATA SSDs and five 1 TB SATA hard drives for 1.3 TB of PCIe flash, 1.2 TB of SATA SSDs and 20 TB of hard drives per block. Blocks can be clustered for scalability. Each block has four 10 GbE and eight GbE ports. The list price for a starter kit with one block is $75,000.

“We looked at getting two more HP servers and another [Xiotech, now XIO] box,” he said. “But the cost there was about 1.5 times the cost of Nutanix, and that’s with two nodes compared to four Nutanix nodes. So I was spending substantially less and getting more. And we didn’t have to do anything with our existing network.”

Emmel said he thought the Nutanix storage appliance was priced better than “any other VDI-in-a-box” options. He brought a Nutanix Complete Cluster block in for a proof-of-concept test in August and purchased it in December when DeWitt Stern’s VDI implementation went live.

The 150-person company started with 15 virtual desktops and plans to expand to 100 by the end of the year. That would be enough virtual desktops for all of the employees in its New York office.

Emmel said he went to VDI to make it easier to manage his users’ desktops. He said patch and software upgrades that used to take weeks can be done in a day or two. “Also, my users are no longer shackled to a piece of hardware. If a system dies, I give them a new thin client and they’re on their way,” he said. “And they can sit anywhere in my office.”

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