How the Salvation Army is upgrading its storage technology
Sometimes, the cloud just isn't for everyone. Or at least not yet.
The Salvation Army is one of the biggest and most recognizable charities in the entire world with operations spread across 127 countries and assisting around 30 million Americans every year. In the holiday season, volunteers ring bells on sidewalks and corners across the country and ask for donations to help families in need.
The charity is divided into different geographic areas. The Salvation Army Western Territory encompasses about 600 locations across the 13 western American states, according to Tim Schaal, IT director for the territory.
Underpinning the charity's ability to fundraise and offer support to people in need is its IT infrastructure, which recently underwent a change in its storage solution. The organization moved to a hardware flash storage product especially suited to its VMware environment.
The Salvation Army does not pass down centralized decisions on how each region will handle things such as IT, allowing each territory to pursue what works best. The Salvation Army territory in the South already uses the cloud for storage. But why wouldn't another branch of the same organization have the same needs and use technology in a similar way?
The Western Territory's move to its current solution offers a unique look into how a company manages a gradual move to the cloud, juggling a tight budget, legacy systems and other business priorities along the way.
Wait, so they just switched hardware?
The territory used a NetApp solution before the move, but it was five years old and incurring high maintenance costs. The organization tried third party maintenance, but this solution did not give it the hardware support, updates or price tag it wanted, said Schaal.
The territory received a proof of concept of Tintri's storage hardware in December 2015 and immediately saw improvements.
Schaal would have liked to move to the solution sooner because a data storage upgrade was on the list of IT things to do, but financial constraints limited the move. The Salvation Army gives 82 cents of every dollar back to the clients, and when all the rest gets split between organizations costs, IT has a limited budget.
"I don't think the cloud is a specific one size fits all solution for everybody."
IT director for the Salvation Army's U.S. Western Territory
So why not move to the cloud?
The Salvation Army accumulates a lot of data, with thousands of donors supporting the organization with small donations of $25-$100, according to Schaal. During the holiday season, it receives an even higher volume of transactions.
The western territory has a lot of legacy infrastructure and data and moving to the cloud would have cost the organization upwards of $1 million annually — a price tag it said it couldn't afford, according to Schaal.
"I don't think the cloud is a specific one size fits all solution for everybody. There were certain aspects, certain applications that work great in the cloud," said Schaal. "And we've moved all of our office processing — Office 365 is now cloud-based — and a few other major applications."
The Southern Territory was able to move immediately to the cloud because it did not have the same amount of legacy systems as the Western Territory, which had been building its IT infrastructure well before the rise of the commercial cloud, according to Schaal.
How did they do it?
Once the flash-storage system was selected, convincing the board was no easy task for Schaal. With a limited budget, even a good idea can need some convincing.
"I gave an original proposal about a year ago … I went into a lot of detail, and it ended up that the detail was more of a problem than it helped," said Schaal. "So the second time around I made it very simple, and then the board was accepting of it."
The Western Territory worked out a three year financing plan, in which the first year of costs came out of the organization's reserves and the latter two came out of the IT operating budget. Reduced maintenance costs under the new storage system helped offset the new costs.
The West uses a centralized storage system with just one data center to service the entire territory, concentrating installation of the new servers into a single location. The new system was "pretty much plug and play," according to Schaal, and the existing IT staff was able to do it without any outside help.
The servers were put in place one September weekend, and within a week the organization had everything migrated over.
Eventually, Schaal wants to move the West to the cloud and only maintain a small data center, but with so many business constraints it will be a slow moving process. The Salvation Army is used to being thrifty, however, and the new flash-storage system is buying time for this future move, said Schaal.
In the meantime, efforts to upgrade network security appliances and other IT infrastructure are ongoing.
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