Meet the Experts at VMworld Barcelona

This year I was fortunate to be given a ticket to VMworld in Barcelona as a partner attendee. Normally when I get to go to a company conference like DTW I have at least some booth duty – but this time I could concentrate on learning and networking. I had read all the guides to surviving VMworld, and digested all the advice and tips. I was careful to book sessions with presenters I wanted to meet before they filled up.  The app was an excellent resource and I used it to plan my days and stuck to the schedule I committed to.  I was very surprised to see many of the sessions only sparsely attended, especially when I knew the speakers were top class and the sessions had been booked out!

I was only given one small task for the event by the boss. The task was to evaluate the Meet The Experts area and Expert Bar and to find out as much as possible on how it worked for the event.  The reason for this is the plan is to run something very similar in Dell Technologies World in Vegas next spring.  Last year the Customer Solution Center had a section near the Hands on Labs area where customers could meet with Solution Architects 1on1 and discuss different products and solutions they were interested in.  The area was a success, we had many conversations and whiteboards were filled – but next year they wanted to see if we could improve the concept.

I must say I was well impressed with how the Meet The Experts and Experts Bar area were run in Barcelona. From what I have read about past VMworld’s the Expert Bar has moved from the VMware booth and now sits next to the Meet the Experts area which used to be called Expert Roundtables.  The location that was chosen was ideal in my opinion.  It was away from the Rock and Roll of the VM Village and Solutions Exchange, and placed outside of the Breakout Rooms.

At the end of any session, there is limited time to ask questions to the presenters so the Expert Bar gives anyone a chance to walk up and speak to someone while the question is fresh in their minds. The Expert Bar was a simple setup of one long table where engineers (not bartenders) served knowledge not alcohol. The table had room for 8 pairs of experts and a screen behind them displayed the details of their primary and secondary skill-sets. As customers fired questions across the bar, the experts could use the table-top as a whiteboard to explain concepts. The action was fast and furious and the Expert Bar was as busy as any in Las Ramblas.

The Meet the Expert sessions were all booked out weeks before the event, through the online scheduler just like any of the breakout sessions. You could search for a specific speaker, or a Topic and book them online.  This is exactly what I did, I booked 2 sessions with speakers that I wanted to meet. The session were at least 45 minutes each, with room for 10 attendees.  To me this is one of the highlights of the show, an opportunity to get into a small sessions with a well-known speaker and get a chance to have a discussion. I was amazed as I passed the area often to see empty seats. I spoke with the person at the desk checking badges of attendees and learned you could grab a no-show seat if they were full when you booked them.

I joined a session by Pete Koehler @vmpete with 6 customers. Pete and I knew each other virtually when Pete did a skype demo for me on new vROPS features after Dell World 2017. It was great to get to meet him in person and I was delighted when he recognized my badge when I sat down – we had a quick chat before he went into a discussion on vSAN availability scenarios.  The session was informal, mostly whiteboard, and the customers were able to ask questions. I was able to intro myself to the group and pitch Solution Centers story, as it turned out one customer asked to contact me after the event for a POC.

I had a second session with Myles Grey @mylesagrey about Kubernetes on vSAN, and I was the only one that turned up! For me this was excellent, because I had heard a lot about Myles and would much prefer to just have a chat while we waited for others to turn up.  Myles was an absolute gent and stayed for the full time-slot, he didn’t need to do that I would have understood if he headed off.  I had another Breakout session later he delivered on NSX that was also excellent.

When I got home from the event I gave a detailed report on the show and I am hoping that we are able to emulate a similar Expert Bar and Meet The Experts session schedule for Dell Technologies World in Las Vegas. If you have time in your conference schedule you would be well advised to include one of these sessions as part of your itinerary.

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VxRail as a building block for VxRack SDDC

I have been interested in the evolution of software defined solutions for the last few years especially anything that makes it easier for customers to quickly deploy hardware, hypervisor, storage,  and virtualization. Post Dell Technologies merger I was quick to raise my hand and volunteer to learn about the VxRail appliance.  It makes sense to me to have an appliance form factor for the Data Center – where the engineering , testing and validation effort is done by the Dell EMC side, rather than by customers – this is about Time-to-Value for sure.  The beauty of the VxRail appliance is the small starting point, ability to scale and the BYONetwork flexibility.  Although I wasn’t ever involved in the VxRack turnkey offerings from EMC pre-merger, this also interested me for larger customers who were interested in rack-scale solutions. I was always curious how Dell EMC would evolve these two use cases aimed at similar customers. Both are looking for a quicker outcome, simplified deployment, scale out and always key is how day 2 operations can be made simple, risk free and still happen fast – helping customers to keep up with the pace of change!

I decided to try and deploy the turnkey stack for the software defined data center; VxRack SDDC which is based on VMware technology. It has vSphere, vSAN and NSX built in with a simplified (automated) deployment and a validated and tested configuration with validated, tested bundles for LifeCycle management covering the entire (hardware & software) stack.

I have a small lab with different VxRail nodes from our portfolio.  I had heard that as the VxRack solution evolved, they would eventually be supporting Cisco and Dell switches as well as VxRail nodes.  This is a pretty exciting development – and makes sense from a Sales, Support, Services pint of view… one building block that is highly engineered by our Dell, VMware and EMC engineering teams to deliver an excellent turnkey experience for our customers.  Talk about hitting the ground running and not needing to reinvent the wheel.  VxRail has been hugely successful for customers and now this would be the building block for rack scale.

I got a chance in my lab to deploy VxRack using VxRail nodes – and I wanted to capture my notes and experience.  The first thing I should caveat is that this not a DIY solution. VxRack is fully engineered in factory. So my notes are more about my experience, not a guide to follow!  In order to get the latest code and a step by step deployment procedure for a VxRack install, only certified services teams, partners and employees have access to download from the support portal. Each new version has a very detailed step by step guide so that there are no snowflakes. Since I was using my lab hardware I need to first check that the hardware I used had the correct Bios, Firmware and software versions to meet the minimum supported standard.  I cheated a little here if I’m honest.  I used VxRail nodes that were imaged with the latest version of software.  I figured that way I didn’t need to manually update each node – I could use the proven VxRail engineering method to automate the update.  I was right and this saved me a lot of time at the start. The only manual task I needed was to assign iDRAC ip addresses that match the guides OOB deployment network.

So now I had the nodes ready (I used 8 E series VxRail nodes). I needed to configure the networking layer.  I had a Dell S3048 for the Management layer and a pair of Cisco 9372s for TOR. I needed to ensure the OS on these matched the guidelines, but that was easy to upgrade. Once I had that ready I needed to follow the wiring diagram.  This was pretty straightforward and yet the only place where I made a simple mistake. Double and triple check your cables is my advice, especially if you are dyslexic when it comes to reading port labels.  Once the cabling is in place, you can wipe the TOR switch config and put the Dell MGMT switch in ONIE mode.  This allows the automated imaging process to image the switch layer as the first task of the deployment.  The deployment network is actually setup on a private network on a simple flat switch, here you will connect the laptop that hosts the imaging appliance, port 48 on the S3048 and the management port of the S3048.

Using VMware workstation and the Dell EMC VxRack imaging appliance OVA that I downloaded, it’s very straightforward to load up the latest VxRack bundle, and specify the number of nodes you plan to image.  The laptop that you use should also have a few tools like putty, Winscp and some Dell software like racadm and OpenManage BMC Utilities. This is used to run some health check scripts and to automate the PXE boot process. I kicked off the imaging from the appliance and it started by first imaging the S3048 management switch.  A short time later it built the two TOR switches and then signaled it was ready to image the first node. Using a racadm script I put the nodes in PXE mode and powered them on one at a time, about 100 seconds apart. The VxRack imaging appliance provided the PXE server environment, recognized the nodes and began imaging them one by one. Once again I can’t highlight enough that the wiring is critical here, every port should match exactly according to the wiring diagram as the TOR and Management switch is strictly defined. When you power on the first node it becomes the first management node and the imaging appliance expects the iDRAC and Nics to match as it records the MAC addresses.  I had a few cables that I had reused at this stage that really I should have replaced, and once I had done that everything went perfectly smoothly.  Next up is the Bring-Up phase of the deployment.  The first node that is imaged now has the SDDC manager VM and a Utility VM deployed, and that is what we will use to access the GUI for configuring the rest of the deployment (part 2 coming soon).

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VxRail and RP4VMs : Better Together

It is always great to host customers at the CSC when they are exploring new Data Center designs or considering new technology they haven’t used before.  It’s even better when we can help them on one successful purchase to  host them again on a new project.  We recently helped a customer that was interested in looking at HCI for a new project.  They were interested in replacing a legacy design with Software defined and that included an active-active capability across multiple Data Centers.

They had been evaluating several vendors for HCI and we actually helped them test both XC (on ESXi) in a synchronous config and VxRail in a stretched config.  The customer had a set of test criteria that meant they wanted to evaluate everything from deployment, through configuration, and failure scenarios plus ease of management and lifecycle updates. The interesting part of this testing was that we hosted the environment built to an agreed design, and then handed it over for their testing – which was all carried out remotely.  When they needed to run some functional testing and to simulate node and site failures I jumped on a Skype session and assisted.  This sped up drastically the amount of time required by the customer to complete all the testing they required.  The timeline was quite tight as the customer needed to draft a comprehensive report on the results to share with their executive board in order to make the purchase decision.

In the end they went with a VxRail vSAN stretched cluster for the first phase of this project.  We would later learn from their Partner (and my running buddy @VictorForde) that the second phase of the project was going to involve another VxRail stretch Cluster and Recoverpoint for Virtual machines.  Once again they asked could we assist and build out a design that could test Recoverpoint running between VxRail Stretch clusters.   This design would allow them to tolerate site failures and also protect against data corruption – giving them the ability to roll back to any point in time copies of their protected VMs.  Victor said, “We configured the environment to remote replicate across two Stretch Clusters within a site with PiT rollback to protect across clusters within a site as well as rollback from logical corruption. vSAN does the protection across each side of the cluster so no RP4VM replication traffic between sites.”

Recoverpoint for VMs (RP4VMs) and VxRail with VMware vSAN are better together for several reasons.  Firstly VxRail is the simplest starting point for a vSAN cluster.  They are easy to size, simple to deploy and make the day to day management a breeze. RP4VMs is really easy to deploy (just drop the latest ova) in a VMware environment.  Although RP4VMs is actually storage agnostic – vSAN is an excellent choice for operational simplicity and ease of….well just about everything storage related! RP4VMs uses a vCenter plug-in that tightly integrates management into vSphere and allows customers a simple interface with orchestration and automation capabilities. It only takes 7 clicks to protect a VM!  Failing back is fast as well, no need extra step needed to copy the data, just roll through the journal to find the point in time needed.  It also rolls from the latest copy back, rather than requires you to roll from the oldest first.

When the customer was finished with their testing they were confident in deployment, configuration, ease of use and disaster testing.  The partner was also happy as they were able to be involved in the entire process from beginning and provide input while also documenting the steps and process involved.  In fact the partner saw a future for this project that other customers might also like, they even gave the solution a new name vStretchPoint – not sure if marketing will run with it, but you never know!

Big thanks to the team involved in the testing for this POC they deserve most of the credit too; @rw4shaw

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Is HCI networking easy?

Even though hyper-converged solutions have been  one of the hottest trends in the Datacenter since virtualization, you will still meet traditional architects that are seeing this technology for the first time.  Many times the customer will come to the conversation with just the virtualization lead,  sometimes they will bring the Storage or Compute team, but often they will forget to tell the Networking team any of their plans (no wonder the network engineer can be so grumpy).  This can prove problematic for a networking team that is not familiar with a few of the basic HCI requirements. Continue reading “Is HCI networking easy?”

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Hardware is not invisible – VxRail HCI appliance

One of the biggest pain points customers have when managing their current traditional architectures is patching and upgrades. They want a so

Upgrading the full stack

lution that helps them to keep updated but does not introduce risk or take a lot of work to validate and test. Pressures on headcount reductions don’t balance with demands from the business to do more at lower costs.  Often preventative maintenance is the first to suffer, and that means existing infrastructure is left to fall further and further behind patching schedules. Continue reading “Hardware is not invisible – VxRail HCI appliance”

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Does the H in HCI matter?

If twitter is where the conversation is then you might be following the debate about what exactly is HCI? and does it matter? Does it matter if the H in HCI is for Hypervisor or Hybrid if the outcome is the same? If the H is still really all about the hypervisor, then does it matter which one is used? What about the infrastructure, is it important or invisible in a software defined world? Continue reading “Does the H in HCI matter?”

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The day job: Presales at the Customer Solution Center

Someone once told me, the best job that they ever had in their career was in pre-sales. I have thought about that a few times in the past, now I thinpresalesk I know why. I get to present to an audience several times a week on technology that interests me, and i have my own lab with real hardware for getting stick time building out solutions! Continue reading “The day job: Presales at the Customer Solution Center”

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