Customers

Penn National Insurance Deploys Nutanix Hybrid Multicloud Platform Across On-Prem and AWS

Nutanix Cloud Clusters Unifies Infrastructure Management, Enables Fast and Secure Cloud-Based DR, and Lowers Both OpEx and CapEx

Overview

By moving to a hybrid cloud powered by Nutanix Cloud Clusters, Penn National Insurance was able to simplify its VDI deployment and quickly launch new virtual desktops on AWS to meet its disaster recovery (DR) needs. The ability to use the same Prism interface to view the Cloud Clusters both on-prem and in the cloud streamlines infrastructure management. The hybrid multicloud solution lowers both OpEx and CapEx. System upgrades were reduced from several months to just a few hours, disaster recovery time was shortened from several days to under two hours, and database configuration time dropped from over a week to 45 minutes.

Key Results

Simple Deployment
Reliable DR
Unified Management
NCC was easy to deploy, even on bare metal, and being able to use existing VPNs and subnets made it simple to use and more secure
Recovery time dropped from several days to under two hours by moving DR to the AWS cloud
Able to see and administer everything from a single pane of glass in both environments

"By scaling out our virtual desktop infrastructure into a Nutanix Cloud Cluster on AWS, we were finally getting away from the expensive and inefficient capital procurement model. The freed-up budget can now be used for other strategic initiatives."

Dan Morrison
Director of Infrastructure and Operations, Penn National Insurance

Challenge

Penn National Insurance was founded in 1919 to help local farmers get more affordable workers' compensation insurance for laborers who operated steam-driven threshing machines. Over 100 years later, the company now sells a diverse array of property-casualty insurance solutions, including business insurance, personal auto, homeowners, and umbrella policies through its network of more than 1,200 independent agency operators located in 11 states.

Running VDI on 3-Tier Architecture

Penn National Insurance deployed Citrix virtual desktops for its employees and developers several years ago on 3-tier architecture with separate storage systems, rack servers, and the VMware ESXi hypervisor. “After we reached about 24 rack servers and dozens of different storage systems, the VDI environment became a ‘real bear’ to manage,” noted Dan Morrison, Director of Infrastructure and Operations at Penn National Insurance. “We have a relatively small IT shop, and we can’t support the care and feeding of that type of infrastructure anymore. We needed to find an integrated solution that would be easier to administer ─ one that would eliminate the frustrations of managing all of those separate infrastructure silos for our VDI deployment.”

Relying on Tape Backups

Penn National Insurance had been relying on a tape-based backup and DR solution before moving to Nutanix. In addition to trying to simplify its VDI setup, they were also getting ready to re-architect their tape-based DR solution. “We had been backing up everything to tapes and storing them offsite at the Iron Mountain Warehouse for several years,” said Craig Wiley, Senior Infrastructure Systems Architect at Penn National Insurance. “If we ever had a disaster, we’d have to go to another site and restore those tapes on rented hardware. Needless to say, it would have taken several days before all of our systems were back online. As our company grew and the amount of data we needed to backup started to skyrocket, we knew we had to upgrade to a better replication solution.”

Solution

“We asked several of our colleagues in the insurance industry what infrastructure they would recommend for our VDI environment, and they all suggested we look at Nutanix,” Morrison reported. “When we found out that Nutanix was also building Cloud Clusters on Amazon Web Services (AWS), we knew it would be a perfect fit for us from an HCI standpoint – choosing Nutanix for both our on-prem and cloud workloads was a no-brainer for us.”

“We support our company’s underwriting and claims, finance, and all other corporate applications and services,” said Wiley. “The solutions we select and deploy are those that will help us prepare for the future, not just solve today’s IT challenges. That’s why we decided to move from all on-prem datacenters to a hybrid, cloud-centric deployment model on Nutanix.”

Moving to Nutanix Cloud Clusters on AWS

Penn National Insurance moved its VDI deployment from the existing 3-tier architecture to Nutanix in 2019. The company’s virtual desktops are now being used by over 850 employees and 100 international developers. After seeing how well the on-prem Nutanix systems performed for the virtual desktops, Penn National Insurance made the decision to launch its new DR initiative on additional Nutanix Cloud Clusters located in the AWS public cloud.

Simplifying Database Management with Nutanix Era

“We originally deployed SQL on our 3-tier infrastructure, but we really wanted to get into HCI to enjoy that simplification of the environment,” Morrison said. “A lot of IT shops favor keeping SQL on 3-tier architecture, but we benchmarked performance and all of those fears went away.”

Penn National Insurance is now using Nutanix Era to manage its SQL databases both on-prem and in the cloud. Era enables simple, fast, consistent database management from a single control plane across on-prem and on public cloud, when running on Nutanix Cloud Clusters on AWS. The Era solution dramatically improves uptime, reduces tedious manual operations, and increases cost efficiency. “We saw the Era demo and were very impressed with its capabilities,” said Wiley. “We especially liked that our DBAs could log in and create their own servers and take their own snapshots using Era.”

Using Xi Beam for Cost Governance

Penn National Insurance is also using Xi Beam for cost governance across its on-prem and cloud deployments. Beam provides Penn National Insurance with the ability to drive financial accountability with intelligent resource sizing and accurate visibility into cloud metering and chargeback. “We configured Beam to look at our public cloud deployments,” explained Wiley. “It has already found several snapshots that were left out there from testing, and I was able to quickly delete them and get some money back. Beam also gave us the visibility we needed to tighten up our security.”

Customer Outcome

A Fast and Easy Deployment on AWS

“We completed all of the testing for the AWS deployment in one day,” reported Wiley. “Once we were convinced everything was working properly, we linked up our on-prem data protection cluster with our rapid recovery Nutanix Cloud Clusters on AWS. In less than two hours, the desktops were on AWS, we turned them on, they came up, we reconfigured Citrix to connect to the desktops in the cloud, and our employees were immediately able to log into their virtual desktops off-network. The Nutanix Cloud Clusters were very easy to deploy, even on bare metal, and being able to use our existing VPNs and subnets made it simple to use and more secure.”

Unified Management Interface On-Prem and in the Cloud

Penn National Insurance’s IT team was very familiar with Prism since they were already using it to manage their on-prem Nutanix infrastructure. “Being able to use the same interface for our on-prem Nutanix Cloud Clusters and the ones in the AWS cloud enabled us to simplify ongoing management,” said Morrison. “The ability to see and administer everything from a single pane of glass in both environments makes our lives so much easier.”

Faster Disaster Recovery

Penn National Insurance’s primary datacenter is located in Harrisburg, and everything is replicated nightly to the company’s co-location facility in Ashburn with AWS Direct Connect. “If we ever have a disaster, we can quickly spin up the Nutanix Cloud Cluster on AWS and bring up the replicated data in the cloud,” said Wiley. “By moving our DR to the AWS cloud, our recovery time has dropped from several days to under two hours.”

“We created a data protection group of ‘first responders’ for our recovery efforts,” explained Mark Keefer, Senior Infrastructure System Administrator at Penn National Insurance. “We replicate their desktops first on AWS to get them up and running. After we restore access for the first responders, the enterprise application group has to verify the applications are working and users can then access them. Then we bring all of the other groups back online one at a time as each previous group finishes. It’s a very efficient and simple way to restore operations quickly.”

Upgrades in Hours, Not Months

“Upgrading our non-persistent VDI environment in the 3-tier environment used to take months,” said Wiley. “With so many different components, we’d have to create a huge matrix chart just to make sure all of the versions were compatible. With Nutanix Cloud Clusters, we can upgrade everything in just a few hours. This enables us to ensure we are always using the most current versions of all of our software and applications.”

Creating SQL Database Clones for Testing in Minutes

Penn National Insurance’s production SQL databases are backed up every night and restored back to test the next day. “Our backups previously took several hours and put a massive amount of data on our network,” explained Wiley. “With Era, we can now snapshot and clone a SQL database in production to a test server in a matter of minutes. We also like the ability to go back in time and bring back a previous snapshot in the same pane of glass. If there ever is an issue, we can revert to the snapshot taken right before the patch. That takes all of the worry out of cloning and the testing process.”

Leveraging Freed-up Capital

Penn National Insurance was also able to reduce its DR initiative budget. “We had been investing a lot of capital into our Equinix colocation site to support virtual desktops that frankly, we don’t need to use in our DR environment,” explained Morrison. “By scaling out our virtual desktop infrastructure into a Nutanix Cloud Cluster on AWS, we were finally getting away from the expensive and inefficient capital procurement. The freed-up budget can now be used for other strategic initiatives.”

The Ability to Re-Use Investments On-Prem and in the Cloud

Nutanix Cloud Clusters enables Penn National Insurance to migrate all of their software licenses with the applications, both on-prem in the AWS cloud, to fully utilize their IT investments. “The ability to re-use licenses is a huge benefit for us,” said Morrison. “If our Harrisburg site ever goes down, we obviously aren’t using the licenses on those clusters, so we’d like the ability to re-use them on AWS. It’s great that we no longer have to pay for a bunch of extra licenses that we aren’t using. This is saving us thousands of dollars every year.”

Reducing OpEx

“We’re always looking for ways to optimize staffing,” noted Wiley. “Managing our SQL environment used to be a full-time job for one of our admins. Allocating storage, virtualizing the operating system, layering SQL on top of those systems, and configuring everything took at least a week in the 3-tier environment. With Nutanix Cloud Clusters and Era, we can now configure everything in under 30 minutes When our SQL admin recently retired, we didn’t have to refill that position and were able to reuse that headcount budget for more strategic initiatives.”

“As much as I like to talk about Nutanix, I love the fact that our admins don’t have to ‘live their lives’ inside Nutanix,” said Morrison. “Both Craig and Mark have so many other responsibilities in infrastructure and operations ─ they wear a lot of different hats. The time they spent on the care and feeding of our 3-tier environment was time I couldn’t get back. With Nutanix, we have an infrastructure that just works. It’s great to hear that upgrading the systems and all of the ‘non-glamorous’ tasks we have to do can be accomplished with just the click of a button in the Nutanix world. Great job Nutanix!”

Implementing Nutanix Flow for Network Security

Penn National Insurance’s IT team is now implementing Nutanix Flow to obtain advanced networking, application-centric visibility, and enterprise-grade micro-segmentation for protection from network threats. “The Nutanix Flow solution is very easy to use,” noted Keefer. “If you put it in learning mode, you can sit back and watch the traffic to see how it works. We are now setting up Active Directory (AD) groups, and I’m very happy with the solution so far.”

Great Nutanix Support Results in Customer Delight

“The Nutanix support team has always been very helpful ─ they even bring their developers into the calls now and then so they can learn from our experience,” reported Wiley. “We also rely on Nutanix Auto Support to proactively notify us of any issues, like reminding us that it’s time to do firmware upgrades. Whenever we had an issue in the 3-tier environment with the separate compute, storage systems, and hypervisors, we’d usually get different advice from each vendor. It’s great to have just one place to go to get answers to our questions or troubleshoot any issues.

Enabling Employees to Work from Home During the Pandemic

“The Covid pandemic has been a great illustrator of how beneficial choosing the right technology is,” said Morrison. “We were fortunate that we had just executed our business continuity plan right before the pandemic hit. We were able to easily transition to a 100% work-from-home environment in just one day since we were already running our virtual desktops on Nutanix.”

Next Steps

“We’ve adopted a cloud-first approach for all new applications and services going forward,” said Morrison. “If the performance is there and the cost makes sense, we will deploy in the cloud. Going forward, we are only partnering with companies that have a similar vision, like Nutanix. Nutanix has eliminated all of the problems we were having with our 3-tier systems. It is exactly what we were looking for in a hybrid multicloud solution.”