Converged infrastructure has the power to significantly improve day-to-day operations, say Nick Ward (left) and Roger Bush of Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals.

Jan 26 2017

FlexPod Makes Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals More Agile

By investing in its technology infrastructure, the hospital system positions itself to meet growing fundraising and business goals.

Raising $1 billion isn’t an easy feat. Doing it year in, year out is even tougher.

But that’s precisely what the management team at Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals aims to do by 2022 to better support the medical, research, technology and charitable needs of its 170 member hospitals across the United States and Canada.

The only way the Salt Lake City–based nonprofit could handle the increased load was to upgrade its technology infrastructure, says Vice President of Information Systems Nick Ward. “I knew we needed to make a serious investment in infrastructure. I didn’t see how we could quadruple our fundraising growth in that time frame without focusing on our technology.”

After evaluating products from three manufacturers, the CMN Hospitals team opted to deploy a FlexPod converged infrastructure, which consists of server virtualization software from VMware, Cisco Unified Computing System (UCS) servers, Cisco Nexus switches and NetApp’s clustered Data ONTAP 8.2 storage operating system.

“We were behind most other IT departments and needed to change the way we did business if we were going to meet our goals,” Ward says of the configuration, which functions as the organization’s private cloud.

The combination of VMware server virtualization technology and Cisco UCS servers reduced the number of physical servers in CMN Hospitals’ data center from 24 to three, says Network Administrator Roger Bush.

Previously, when the organization needed to order a server, the process could take weeks, Bush says. “Now, if one of our groups needs a new server, we can bring up a virtual machine and the new server can be ready for them that day,” he explains.

Securing new software that required in-house infrastructure was equally time-consuming, Ward adds. The IT team first had to find money for the new hardware to support it, then space in the already crowded server room to house it.

“Then we’d have to rack, stack and configure it,” he says. “Getting new systems up was very slow.”


The percentage of IT managers who say they currently use an integrated computing platform

SOURCE: Enterprise Strategy Group, “Storage Systems Brief: VMware Virtual SAN,” March 2014

Moving Forward With FlexPod

When CMN Hospitals started its FlexPod deployment last fall, the goal was to virtualize 20 percent of its servers by the end of 2013, Ward says. But the process went so well that the IT team achieved 35 percent virtualization in that time.

By spring 2014, IT had virtualized 70 percent of the organization’s workloads, including its domain controllers, storage area network, backup servers, and Microsoft SharePoint and SQL servers. The process should be complete by year’s end, Ward estimates.

“The first push happened very quickly — inside of four weeks,” he says. “We were very happy to have exceeded our initial goals.”

The All-Important Consultation

Before any of the deployment took place, CDW personnel traveled to CMN Hospitals’ headquarters to conduct a full virtualization, network, server and storage assessment. According to Tim York, a field account manager at CDW, the exercise gives an organization a better sense of its existing infrastructure and helps CDW make recommendations to strengthen it.

“They made it clear to us that they intended to grow by a factor of four over the next decade, and that they were willing to make the necessary investment in infrastructure,” he adds.

CDW engineers ran tests on the organization’s input/output operations per second, disk usage and overall network usage, which gave CMN Hospitals’ IT staff a complete view of their existing IT environment.

Bush says the CDW team showed them what was running and what was consuming the most CPU cycles and disk space. CDW engineers also helped identify physical servers that were sitting idle or running at capacity.

“They showed us that we weren’t able to utilize that spare capacity for the systems that needed it, given how our physical environment was set up,” he says.

For example, CMN Hospitals had several underutilized systems, while others running Microsoft SharePoint were consuming nearly all available resources. “SharePoint is a big entry point for all of our stakeholders,” Bush explains, but its slow performance “was a real sore spot for the organization.”

Ward and his team selected FlexPod because the solution allowed CMN Hospitals to virtualize its servers within the tight time frame they had established. “FlexPod was a natural fit because it was all certified,” he says.

Some aspects of the deployment went especially quickly, Ward continues. They were able to deploy new contract management and invoicing systems in less than a day apiece, for example.

“All of this made us a very agile organization,” he says. “Now, we’re able to raise money while being more efficient in our processes, instead of using up precious resources that could be leveraged to fulfill our mission.”

Storage Surplus

FlexPod also lets CMN Hospitals dramatically improve its storage operations with NetApp’s clustered Data ONTAP software. One of the main benefits the storage software offers is what NetApp refers to as nondisruptive operations.

In older storage architectures, when systems administrators wanted to swap out storage controllers for newer ones, they had to disable everything on that storage system, explains Bill Richan, an enterprise account executive at NetApp. After taking all applications offline, they would then do a physical replacement of the controller for every application — a process that typically required six to eight hours of downtime.

With clustered Data ONTAP, if an organization wants to upgrade to the latest controller, IT staff “can place those controllers side by side with the existing controllers and move the workload simply by joining those controllers into the cluster virtually,” Richan continues.

“Systems administrators can move the workloads to the newer controllers without the applications really knowing the difference, and the systems never have to be taken down,” he says.

Once that’s done, administrators can take the old ­controllers offline. Joel Nordsving, a senior FlexPod, Cisco UCS, VMware and NetApp engineer at CDW, says NetApp’s clustered Data ONTAP does for storage what VMware’s vSphere does for servers.

“Clustered Data ONTAP lets us move workloads around to different controllers without having to shut down the entire workload,” explains Nordsving. “It lets us add storage capacity on the fly, the same way VMware lets us add virtual machines.”

The technologies have significantly improved day-to-day operations for the CMN Hospitals’ IT department, Bush says. As staff spin up virtual machines, they can now more easily match storage disks to applications.

“We have a number of applications that run on SATA disks, and a number that run on SAS,” he says. “SATA disks are much slower, which for web applications would be fine because they aren’t reading that much data or having a great impact on end users.”

SQL database applications, on the other hand, require more processing capacity. If IT staff rolled out those applications on SATA disks, they would receive complaints from users.

“The new NetApp technology lets us migrate the entire virtual machine to faster disks with no break in service — the application stays up the whole time,” Bush says. “Plus, as it moves over to the faster SAS disks, its performance increases.”

The combination of efficiencies that VMware, Cisco and NetApp solutions deliver makes FlexPod the best possible choice for CMN Hospitals, Ward says.

Children's Miracle Network Hospitals

Francisco Kjelseth

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