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Experian BI on the road to SDDC

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Kathy Gibson at SUSEcon, Prague – Global information services company Experian BI knew it needed to migrate to a software-defined data centre (SDDC) to keep its systems up to date and agile.

The company leverages the massive amount of data to help businesses manage credit risk, prevent fraud, target marketing and automate decision-making. It also offers customers a number of other data-related services.

So storage is critical to the business, and Howard Samm, head of infrastructure at Experian BI, explains that adding servers running ZFS was just not working anymore. The systems need constant tuning and manual intervention, while balancing was an ongoing issue.

Experian runs a number of physical servers for its relational databases in two data centres within the UK. These run both Windows and Linux virtual machines, are linked with 10Gb lines and between them share 1,5 petabytes of storage.

The company has to find a solution that gave it more uptime and didn’t need so much intervention, and opted for software-defined storage in the form of SUSE Enterprise Storage.

The solution includes snapshots and replication. Although it lacks compression this is offset by not needing RAID. “And the relationship with SUSE gave us confidence,” Samm says.

The first attempts to run SES on existing servers was a spectacular failure, Samm says. “I messed about initially; but then bit the bullet and did it properly.”

Experian installed four new servers with bigger disks and more RAM as well as a cache tier to improve performance.

“I have genuinely found that we now have high availability everywhere,” Samm says. The system also offers performance and flexibility, has more usable space and gives customers an easy growth path.

Scripts developed for the ZFS systems can be re-used, Samm adds. Best of all, the system is easy to balance because storage is effectively one pool, and snapshots are available.

“The deployment wasn’t perfect,” Samm admits. “There were some challenges.”

Among these was a problem in controlling costs, some features that were missing initially, and there were issues with backups.Other challenges included logging and alerting, management and remodelling.

“In terms of the cache tier, we actually had a show-stopping bug and I thought we would have to roll everything back,” Samm says. “But it was fixed and we were able to move forward.”

Proving value is always an issue for technology like this. “We love it but senior management doesn’t always see it,” Samm says.

Was SES the right decision for Experian BI? “It’s not for the faint-hearted,” Samm says. “But it was also easier than some of the other projects we have done in the past.

“it really is great technology and it is now mature. Its robust and we haven’t yet had a crash. Plus, the support from SUSE has been great.”

Since deploying the original SES solution, Experian BI has quadrupled its disk capacity and added disaster recovery.

The next step in the journey to SDDC, Samm says, was a move to SUSE OpenStack Cloud.

Requirements included a need rapid deployment, self-service for developers, attention to compliance issues, easy capacity planning and more flexibility.

Having implemented SUSE OpenStack Cloud, Samm points out controlling costs proved to be a major challenge. It also proved to be a steep learning curve along with issues in migrating the existing workload. He says there have also been difficulties associated with planning and remodelling.

“Planning is paramount,” he says. “I cannot stress enough that you need to start with  piece of paper and plan what you want to do. Otherwise you will end up with something no-one wants to use; or you will fail and have to start again.”

However, the net results has been positive. “By adding these two products together, I have been able to deliver on my promise stot he business,” Samm says.

“We have delivered self-service for the developers, while we can easily set up new environments and spin up resources.”

Getting developers to use the new services is possibly the most difficult part of the project, though. “You have to go into this with your eyes open, Samm says. “No matter how well the technology works, you need to get buy-in from the developers to really tell you what they need.

“If you don’t, it will never get used properly, and you will never get the project finished. I work very hard at socialising the developers with the system. There is an awful lot to do on this front.”

Once the benefits are demonstrated, however, there is huge interest, Samm says. “We really are in the early stages of this. We believe it will help us do good things going forward.”

The future is both bright and cloudy, Samm adds. “We are in a great place right now. I think modern software and technology is now robust enough to use in the production environment.

“I think it’s only really happened in the last six months, but it’s getting better and better now.”