Cancer Research UK (CRUK) has managed to improve its storage utilisation by 30 percent using EMC’s VNX unified storage offering, after it had been struggling with performance whilst migrating to a virtual desktop environment and centralised infrastructure.

Computerworld UK spoke to CRUK back in July, when it was in the process of moving its entire infrastructure into a third-party co-location facility hosted by Interxion. In doing this it had also set up a 1,200 user base Citrix XenDesktop environment, using Wyse T10 thin clients, and was also upgrading to Citrix 5.6, from Citrix 4.0.

Michael Briggs, head of infrastructure at CRUK, explained to Computerworld UK this week that this project had negative implications for the charity’s storage.

“As we moved to this new environment, one of the problems we found was that with all of the virtual desktops sharing the same piece of central infrastructure, as far as storage was concerned, desktop performance was questionable,” said Briggs.

“We started to call it VDI syndrome, where at 4 o’clock all of the VDIs would grind to a halt.”

One of the main problems was that CRUK had moved to a disk-based back-up system with Interxion and Briggs had underestimated the amount of data that it had to bring across as part of the desktop virtualisation.

He said: “The cost of the back-ups from disk-to-disk just didn’t scale and it escalated so much that we had to do something about it.”

CRUK opted for an integrated EMC backup and recovery solution, which included EMC Data Domain and EMC NetWorker to protect approximately 200 terabytes of critical block and file data, including 480 Windows and 300 Linux virtual machines.

The primary data centre stores vital operating data, runs mission-critical applications, and supports the 1,200 thin client terminals operated by the CRUK staff. The secondary data centre supports test and development of data and applications.

“The investment we made in this versus the escalating cost of our back-ups on the managed service meant that it will literally pay for itself by the end of year one. It was the easiest money I ever had to ask for,” said Briggs.

“It has also reduced our back-up window. We were previously kicking off back-ups at 5.30pm and hoping it would be done by 7.30am the following morning. Now it starts at 8.30pm and it is done well before midnight.”

CRUK also selected VNX unified storage running EMC’s FAST Suite and Total Protection Pack to replace its legacy storage solution.

CRUK has implemented a FLASH 1st strategy in its unified storage environment, using the FAST Suite and enterprise Flash drives to achieve a 30% performance improvement.

CRUK automatically tiers “hot” or active data to Flash, while tiering less active data onto cheaper, high capacity drives.

CRUK was also one of the first companies to use EMC VFCache, which is a server flash cache solution that improves performance and provides faster access to its CRM solutions on Oracle.

“These VFCache cards were hot off the press at the time. The idea is that you are putting flash memory chips onto PCIe cards and plugging them directly into the server,” explained Briggs.

“VFCache works in line with the Flash First technology, and effectively what it does it provides you a step above your prime tier of storage and just caches real ‘hot’ data,” he added.

“So what we did is look at the active tables on the Oracle databases, which is about 600Gb worth of data, pointed the VFCache card at them and switched it on. It tripled our throughput.”

Briggs explained that the VFCache cards allowed CRUK to run campaigns in thirty to forty minutes, where they had been taking four hours previously.

He said: “Effectively this means that we can get three or four times the amount of campaigns done that we used to. We handed the results to the head of business unit recently and I think his eyebrows are still sitting on the top of his head.

“They aren’t quite sure what they are going to do with it yet, but it definitely provides them with new opportunities.”

Finally, Briggs explained that cost is always the main challenge for CRUK when it is looking to implement new technologies, as every penny the IT department spends is a penny that could have been spent on trying to cure cancer.

He said: “It’s always difficult to introduce something that looks like the brightest, shiniest piece of equipment, but in effect we have reduced our operational budget by £1.4 million by doing what we do. It pays for itself eventually. 

“As long as we continue to do that then we always end up at a point where a business case for spending to save can be made.”