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Alabama universities plan to share DRaaS, Nutanix HCI

One university's disaster recovery as a service can serve as a cloud for shared services with other schools in Alabama seeking to shrink their data center footprint.

Alabama A&M University built its disaster recovery plan with tornadoes in mind, and then found it helpful after getting hit by "that unseen tornado," COVID-19.

Alabama A&M (Agricultural and Mechanical) University is in Huntsville, part of northern Alabama known as "Dixie Alley," which is particularly prone to tornadoes. To deal with these threats, Alabama A&M CIO Damian Clarke overhauled the university's IT infrastructure around Nutanix hyper-converged infrastructure (HCI) on premises and its Xi Leap DR as a service (DraaS). His goal was to build a DR cloud that could be shared with other historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in Alabama.

The DRaaS setup would allow the schools to operate remotely if campuses or other facilities were not available. Little did Clarke know that working remotely would soon become the only way schools everywhere could operate.

"Everybody is looking for ways to do IT better," Clarke said. "Doing IT better does not mean you need the best data center on your campus. It means you can provide the best services for your people."

He said the state's HBCUs already had an informal consortium to share resources. Now they can share services hosted on one or two campuses to provide all of them with DR.

Alabama A&M CIO Damian ClarkeDamian Clarke

"The question is, do we all need data centers?" Clarke said. "The answer might be 'no.' We can consolidate data services in centralized locations and certain schools don't need a data center. If Alabama A&M is a centralized location using Nutanix, any of those other HBCUs can use our infrastructure and wouldn't need a data center. They could open a browser and manage a remote data center on our Nutanix hardware."

Alabama A&M installed Nutanix in late 2019 with the goal of running all of the college's services in the cloud if necessary. With the pandemic, the college will offer online courses but remain physically closed at least through its summer semester.

"Before COVID-19, it was a great idea," Clarke said of his DR plan. "Now it's a necessary idea. When COVID-19 -- that great tornado -- hit, we were able to move online in a matter of days from a technology perspective."

Alabama A&M installed six Nutanix clusters and Nutanix Xi Leap for DRaaS. After COVID-19 hit, it added Nutanix Xi Frame desktop as a service.

"Disaster recovery as a service is another reason we use Nutanix," he said. "Everyone in the consortium gets all of these to these services. We wanted a scalable, comprehensive solution and at the same time, we wanted to provide the same thing to the consortium."

The question is, do we all need data centers? The answer might be 'no.'
Damian ClarkeCIO, Alabama A&M University

Clarke said before deciding on HCI, he explored going completely to the cloud. "I thought that was the only solution at first," he said. "I'm always looking at 'Let's get rid of the data center, let's go 100% cloud.' When we did a deep dive, we found out it was more cost-effective to put things in the cloud but not cost-effective to take things out of the cloud. We just can't afford it right now."

Still, Alabama A&M cut its data center footprint and list of vendors considerably by going hyper-converged. The school previously had Dell EMC storage and Cisco servers, and "a data center that's at least 10 times bigger than we have now," Clarke said.

"We had too many vendors in the data center. When there were problems, we had one vendor blaming the other vendor on the phone. When we were on the phone, we were down. And I'm on the phone, trying to explain to the university president why we were down."

Clarke said his 15-person IT team that services the university's 7,000-plus users now has more "operational efficiency" because it is less focused on keeping infrastructure running. "The conversations we have now are more visionary," he said. "I don't want my IT people deep in the weeds, I tell them 'I want you to think on a visionary level.' But we couldn't get out of survival mode before."

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