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UNT travels to an EMC hybrid cloud architecture

To put a shared IT services model in place, University of North Texas implemented EMC Federation cloud services that include VMware products. A public cloud is planned for 2016.

A storage overhaul was the first step the University of North Texas system took toward implementing an EMC hybrid cloud model to consolidate IT and offer shared services across campuses.

The University of North Texas (UNT) consists of 38 public and four private institutions across three campuses in Dallas, Fort Worth and Denton. UNT's IT serves 41,000 students and 5,000 faculty members.

UNT standardized on EMC primary and data protection storage and software, and followed by adopting the vendor's hybrid cloud blueprint.

CTO Rama Dhuwaraha said when he arrived at the university in November of 2013, UNT was two years into a plan to move to a shared IT service model for departments including human resources, finance, purchasing and IT. Dhuwaraha's experience with shared services in previous roles at government and higher education positions was one reason he was hired at UNT.

Step one: eliminating storage silos

At UNT, Dhuwaraha inherited a siloed storage infrastructure, with each campus maintaining its own system all under a central IT group. Dhuwaraha made it his first priority to upgrade what he considered a costly and inefficient storage structure. His team looked at the major players -- Dell, EMC, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Hitachi Data Systems and NetApp.

"We had to create visibility because we didn't have that," he said. "Every campus unit had different systems. It was difficult for me to integrate all of that."

UNT went all in with EMC storage. It has VMAX in its primary data center and VNX in its secondary data center, tied together with VPLEX for continuous availability. The university also has XtremIO all-flash storage, Isilon NAS, and Data Domain, NetWorker and RecoverPoint for data protection. It uses ViPR to manage all the different systems.

Much of UNT's storage was purchased as Vblocks, which packages EMC arrays with Cisco UCS and networking. The UNT set-up also includes VMware NSX software-defined networking.

On 'bleeding edge' of cloud services

When UNT picked EMC, the vendor was in the early days of what it called EMC Enterprise Hybrid Cloud, a reference architecture which has been renamed Federation Enterprise Hybrid Cloud (FEHC).

"We were moving towards that without knowing it," Dhuwaraha said of the EMC hybrid cloud. "We came in on the bleeding edge."

UNT implemented its first version of FEHC last April, and now offers users 60 IT services through a self-service portal. These services include provisioning storage and servers.

Dhuwaraha said it will upgrade to the next FEHC release in January.

UNT has yet to add a public cloud to the FEHC set up. Dhuwaraha said that is on the roadmap for Phase 3 of its implementation in October 2016. He is evaluating Amazon Web Services (AWS) and EMC Virtustream public clouds.

The goal is to move data seamlessly between data centers, and also to send some off to a public cloud.

"We recently acquired carrier-class firewalls," he said. "We want to manage what we call our North-South traffic that leaves campus with those [firewalls], and the East-West traffic within our campus with NXS. But that hasn't been completed yet. That's a vision of where we're going, and I think it will make the hybrid cloud more efficient."

Self-service portal saves time, money

UNT is already saving time and money with its cloud setup, he said. He said his team can provision servers now in 30 minutes instead of days, and he estimates maintenance time will be reduced by 30% and costs by 27% in future budgets. The provisioning requires no IT resources.

Dhuwaraha said his team has done cost comparisons with public storage clouds such as AWS, Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud, and found his internal set up costs less.

"Unless you're moving workloads in and out daily -- which we don't do a lot -- we're about 37% to 60% cheaper, depending on the type of service," he said. "And with public clouds, when you move data out, the question is how do you get it back? That's been a huge problem with Amazon."

Watching Dell-EMC merger closely

With his heavy investment in EMC, Dhuwaraha said he was "quite concerned" when he heard about Dell's plans to acquire EMC. He made a trip to EMC's Hopkinton, Mass. headquarters to meet with executives to discuss those concerns. He said he left feeling more optimistic, but still has concerns about the deal that is scheduled to close in mid-2016.

"I'm taking a wait-and-see approach," he said. "We made a huge investment in EMC, so I'm hoping that no products or solutions are phased out. As we're putting this all together, especially with VMware at the core of some of these things we're trying to automate, if [VMware] is being spun out, what does that mean to the rest of the group?

"On the other hand, by going private [as part of Dell], I believe they can take a longer term view as opposed to just being worried about every quarter. But the concern, if you're going to spend $67 billion, [is] how are you going to pay for that? Are you going to take it out of R&D, are you going to generate more revenue? The investors are going to want their money back somehow. We have good relationships with Dell, but that doesn't mean we can shape how things go."

Looking for more coordinated upgrades

Dhuwaraha said UNT will invest deeper in EMC hybrid cloud and the federation in January when it upgrades its VMware vSphere and vRealize cloud management suite. His goal is to put in place a more granular system to measure storage and compute resource use and costs for each school in the cloud.

He has also asked EMC for more features, including the ability to automate replication of workloads across data centers, consolidate provisioning into one tool and provide synchronized upgrades of the multitude of EMC products.

"We've asked that they really coordinate their upgrades, we don't want that to be manual" he said. "We have a complicated list of tools and products. There is NSX and vSphere from VMware, and EMC storage lines. Because they're all interdependent, we can't just do one upgrade and sit and wait for another one. That can create inefficiencies."

Next Steps

The cloud storage market shows it's time for a hybrid strategy

Weigh the advantages of a hybrid cloud approach

EMC expands hybrid cloud strategy with series of acquisitions

Dig Deeper on Hybrid cloud storage