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Golf association says it saves green with XtremIO flash array

Golf Course Superintendents Association of America (GCSAA) moves tier 1 applications to EMC XtremIO flash-only array as key part of three-phase IT transformation project.

The Golf Course Superintendents Association of America (GCSAA) will never go back to spinning disk-based storage for production data if its director of information technology, Lambert Tomeldan, has his way.

GCSAA has hosted its VMware Horizon virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) and other applications on an EMC XtremIO flash array for two years. The performance and efficiency of that system convinced Tomeldan that the benefits of all-flash outweigh any cost premium.

Plus, with the price of flash declining, Tomeldan claimed GCSAA can actually save money with its flash investments over the amount of hard-disk drive (HDD) storage required to achieve comparable performance.

"I'm sold on flash going forward. We won't buy any more spinning disk," Tomeldan said.

He said he could foresee using HDDs only for backups or archives. In cases where GCSAA might need the quick retrieval of videos or photos, he would be more inclined to try a hybrid approach, with a mix of HDDs and faster solid-state drives (SSDs).

Impetus for flash-only array

GCSAA's move to flash storage is part of a three-phase project to transform the golf organization's IT infrastructure. The 50-seat Horizon VDI project provided the impetus to give the XtremIO flash array a try. The association's external users and field staff are scattered across the country, including areas with limited bandwidth. Tomeldan said he wanted to make sure GCSAA supplied a high-performance back end to compensate for the unknown connection speeds.

The IT team first conducted a proof of concept using SSDs inside the EMC VNX hard-disk drive array that GCSAA's SQL Server databases use. Tomeldan said the performance gains the team benchmarked were dramatic -- close to 60% for the reports and business intelligence (BI) dashboards they pooled from the databases.

I'm sold on flash going forward. We won't buy any more spinning disk.
Lambert Tomeldandirector of information technology, GCSAA

"We discovered a little bit of flash can go a long way," he said.

He figured flash would be the inevitable choice as GCSAA built out its storage strategy, and there was no point in investing in spinning disk. So, the team decided to scope out the latest all-flash arrays in the market, including EMC's XtremIO and Pure Storage's solid-state systems, before ultimately making the decision in favor of the XtremIO flash array.

"One of the things that sold us on XtremIO was the ease of implementation," Tomeldan said. "We don't have a storage engineer on staff, so it was important to have something that was easy to maintain -- set it and forget it."

The performance level of the XtremIO flash array on GCSAA's VDI implementation convinced the five-member GCSAA IT team to migrate other tier-one workloads. These included the back end of the group's mobile applications, parts of the CRM system, the BI dashboards and reporting data warehouse.

Tomeldan said the XtremIO flash array currently stores about 6 TB of the 20 TB of tier-one data that GCSAA keeps at headquarters in Lawrence, Kan. The hybrid VNX, with HDDs and one flash tray, handles tier-two customer- and internal-facing applications.

Hybrid cloud approach

GCSAA also stores another 20 TB of data off premises, Tomeldan said. The association uses virtual machines and storage in VMware's hosted vCloud Air for tier-one applications that it makes available to its more than 17,000 members.

"That just happened to offer us the level of control we were looking for where we can get into our own VMware orchestrator, provision our own servers, provision our own network at a very reasonable price as well as manage our storage," Tomeldan said.

He estimated that GCSAA saved about $350,000 using vCloud Air versus hiring staff and purchasing equipment. The association is in the process of replicating all the data from its VNX and XtremIO arrays to vCloud Air, and vice versa. If either the on-promises or off-site systems experience an outage or failure, the other would take over to run the business, Tomeldan said.

Another ongoing data protection initiative for GCSAA is a switch from Barracuda Networks appliance/cloud to EMC's Data Domain and CloudArray for on-premises and cloud-based backups. Tomeldan said GCSAA plans to use the Data Domain appliance for on-site backups and to replicate data to the EMC CloudArray service for copies and long-term storage. The association's archival storage needs include lots of photos and videos that GCSAA makes available to members through its magazine and website.

Three-phase IT transformation project

Building up the backup and disaster recovery capabilities this year represents the third and final phase of GCSAA's IT transformation project. The first phase transformed all physical servers to virtual servers. An add-on to the first phase recently converged server and networking hardware with existing EMC storage via VCE Vblocks. The second phase upgraded the storage systems, including the 2014 purchase of the XtremIO flash array.

"Three years ago, we did an analysis of what it would take to maintain our data center versus outsourcing it to the cloud or any of those cloud services, and we were still saving quite a bit of money hosting it internally," Tomeldan said.

Still, Tomeldan said he would consider an all-cloud infrastructure in any future IT transformation at GCSAA. Although the association has been an EMC shop since 2006, the GCSAA IT director said he is open to any technology.

"We want to become more efficient, more agile and be able to change directions as the business changes directions -- and not be married into a traditional storage solution," Tomeldan said.

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