From physical to virtual to cloud and everywhere in between

CIOs everywhere are transforming their data centers from purely physical infrastructures located on-premises to virtual infrastructures that also make use of the cloud. Read how one data-driven company made the transition.

Like many IT leaders today, Larry Bradley, director of technology operations and projects for Sentrana, faced the reality that he and his team had to reinvent the company's data center. They would have to transition it from one laden with traditional on-premises infrastructure to one that combines virtualization, open source and hybrid cloud technologies that could make more cost effective use of resources.

Sentrana is a predictive technology company based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 2004, Sentrana deals with terabytes of data today, but Bradley knows that will eventually grow to petabytes of data. The company uses sophisticated quantitative models to provide its clients with predictive analytics as well as qualitative insights collected from human experience. Sentrana's main software application, MarketMover, helps its clients make better sales and marketing decisions all along the demand chain.

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"Our company is a very data-driven organization since we help clients with their pricing, promotions and advertising, product assortment, and sales force alignment," says Bradley.

For instance, one of Sentrana's customers, Sysco Foods, is among the world's largest distributors and sellers of food products to restaurants, healthcare facilities and hotels. Sysco has approximately 120,000 products that it sells to 40,000 different users or buying centers.

"We can set up to 48 billion price combinations every night for them. We know that business insight is critical for them which means we need to store and access that data as efficiently as possible," Bradley says.

The transition at Sentrana is underway with workloads coming off physical servers and being moved to virtual servers. "This enables us to do more with what we already have, while ensuring higher availability than we have today," says Bradley. "We're making our IT infrastructure much more flexible and agile to handle massively scalable data requirements."

Sentrana is using lightweight, open source KVM virtualization tools running on either Debian or Ubuntu distributions, and ConVirt Enterprise software from Convirture for overall management. Bradley says that open source-based virtualization provides more freedom and flexibility than VMware. Sentrana also looked at Citrix XenServer and XenCenter software but preferred the additional functionality and automation provided by the combination of KVM and Convirture.

Looking back, Bradley says the "aha moment" came when his team realized they could be the data version of Zynga or Facebook, if they could take proper advantage of cloud and virtualization technologies. In other words, instead of providing hyperscaling in terms of number of users, Sentrana would offer hyperscaling of the amount of data it can process.

Zynga and Facebook, along with Google, further inspired Sentrana's approach in how they eliminated layers of technology that used to sit between their respective users and the overall experience. To accomplish this, these companies created their own data centers comprised of highly customized, stripped down hardware and software platforms that address their specific computing needs.

"Take, for example, Dell which has traditionally wanted to sell you this one-size-fits-all server that has all the bells and whistles. Now, we are working together to strip all of that away so we aren't wasting power or compute cycles. Our goal is to shrink and improve the exposure of data to machines and to people," Bradley says.

A key partner in helping reinvent Sentrana's data center is Convirture, a San Francisco-based company specializing in management software for open source virtualization and cloud platforms. Its ConVirt Enterprise provides backup facilities and reporting features. "That enabled us to shrink the time it takes to create a backup of a virtual machine so we don't have it offline for a long period of time," according to Bradley.

Convirture's software is better able to manage his virtual and cloud infrastructure by making it easier to expand the infrastructure on an as-needed basis. Sentrana has started to use Amazon as a cloud provider but is limiting its role to avoid lock-in while actively exploring infrastructure as a service (IaaS) technologies, which generally present Sentrana with more flexible options. "You could call it a production pilot," Bradley says.

Such is the state of many data centers today, which are rapidly evolving to adapt to fast-moving business conditions while taking advantage of the latest advances in technology. For instance, as part of Sentrana's data center transition, Bradley is also looking at bringing on new solid-state drive (SSD) accelerated storage technology.

"With so many companies in the business intelligence and analytics field today, we know we've got to keep pushing ahead to give our clients great value," says Bradley. "This conversion of our IT infrastructure is key to supporting our business today and into the future."

Linda Musthaler is a principal analyst with Essential Solutions Corporation. You can write to her at LMusthaler@essential-iws.com.

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About Essential Solutions Corp:

Essential Solutions researches the practical value of information technology, and how it can make individual workers and entire organizations more productive. Essential Solutions offers consulting services to computer industry and corporate clients to help define and fulfill the potential of IT.

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