Stone Group - Providing digital transformation solutions to organisations across the UK.

The North Essex Multi-Academy Trust (NEMAT) provides services to four schools; Braintree Sixth Form & Notley High School, Ramsey Academy, Richard De Clare Community Academy and Acorn Academy. The Trust exists to support head teachers by providing targeted support for school improvement activity, and by taking responsibility for all non-core functions so that they can concentrate on Teaching and Learning, Student Outcomes and Communications with their communities. One such service is ICT infrastructure and Management of IT, including network and website.

The Trust supports pupils from primary school through to sixth form and Mark Fuller is its Network Manager and has a team of five who work across the estate.

The Challenge

The servers at Notley High School were becoming end of life and Mark was responsible for replacing them with a system that made best use of the school’s budget without compromising on quality and performance.  “Refreshing our server infrastructure has implications for finances and the future IT of the school,” said Mark. “It’s vital we choose the best kit and so we approached numerous providers to provide solutions and costs.”

The Stone Group works with numerous education providers across the country from primary schools right through to universities, and are acutely aware of the specific challenges faced by Multi Academy Trusts (MATs) where establishments may have different solutions which can be time consuming and complicated to monitor for the IT team.

Mark said “We had been using VMware server virtualisation technology and we wanted to upgrade this along with the server and SAN. When the various solutions came in for tender it was immediately apparent that the Stone Equinox solution was so superior it made it difficult to compare like for like.”

The Equinox is Stone’s hyper-converged virtualisation platform that’s a high-performance alternative to traditional Server and SAN solutions. Utilising Microsoft’s industry-leading Hyper-V platform and powered by the latest 2nd Gen Intel® Xeon® Scalable Processors and technologies such as Intel® QuickAssist, the Stone Equinox provides impressive speed, storage and scalability, at a fraction of the cost of competing solutions.

Solutions in Stone’s HAS, hyper-converged range have been officially certified by Microsoft, meaning Stone are the only UK exclusive Microsoft partner to have approved solutions in the Microsoft Azure Stack HCI catalogue.

The Azure cloud platform is more than 200 products and cloud services designed to help you bring new solutions to life – to solve today’s challenges and create a better future. Build, run and manage applications across multiple clouds, on-premises and at the edge, with the tools and frameworks of your choice.

“The performance is outstanding and having Stone support if we need it is reassuring. Having such a first-class system and support structure means we can turn our attention to other parts of our job. It’s one less thing to have to worry about.”

Stone’s VSS team are really knowledgeable and are just at the end of the phone if we need them.

Mark Fuller, Network Manager

The Solution

“The Equinox solution was totally bespoke and based on our requirements,” said Mark. “In addition, it was clear that we got a lot more ‘bang for our buck’ with Stone. Compared to the competitors, the Equinox stood out a mile cost wise, it won hands down on both performance and price.”

Stone developed a solution based on Mark’s specification in terms of hardware space, performance and RAM. It was also important to future proof the solution by essentially building in redundant space which could be added to at a later date as well as keeping the system up and running if there were any issues. In this case, the school’s storage needs were based on three server nodes.

“Stone could have built and delivered the solution in weeks but they were really flexible and worked around our financial year and term dates,” said Mark. “We are a very able IT team and so only wanted Stone to design, build, configure and deliver the system. My team were able to do the data migration in-house.”

Benefits of upgrading to the 2nd Gen Intel® Xeon® Scalable Processor platform

Accelerate AI and Analytics Insights

Experience new levels of compute performance with 2nd Gen Intel® Xeon® Scalable processors—with more world-class per-core performance and new features, such as Intel® DL Boost which accelerates AI inference 30x on an Intel® Xeon® Platinum 9200 processor compared to an Intel® Xeon® Platinum 8180 processor.

But compute performance only takes you so far. Intel has worked with its vast ecosystem to optimize performance across leading software. A 2nd Gen Intel® Xeon® Scalable processor paired with revolutionary Intel® Optane™ DC persistent memory doubles memory capacity when combined with DRAM (vs. a DRAM-only approach). And, Intel® Optane™ SSDs deliver exceptional storage performance, while Intel networking innovations provide fast I/O between platforms.

One Infrastructure – Many Demanding Workloads

2nd Gen Intel® Xeon® Scalable processor-based servers excel at running your most compute-intensive and data demanding workloads—from AI training and inference, to real-time, in-memory analytics, to HPC workloads, to all of your business-critical and everyday workloads.

And that means you can spend your time driving growth, differentiation and innovation instead of managing multiple infrastructures.

Hardware-hardened Security

Deploying strong security software is critical, but a software-only security approach can only take you so far. That’s why Intel designed 2nd Gen Intel® Xeon® Scalable processors with built-in security features.

Silicon-based innovations help to eliminate threats from data center platforms, and additional features greatly accelerate data encryption and decryption for data at rest, in use and in flight.

Next-level Hybrid Cloud

Run 3.5x more VMs per server versus prior generation2 (5-year refresh VM density improvement). Take advantage of hardware-based virtualization enhancements. Improve cloud-based resource utilization. And scale server performance and capacity to new highs.

Stone Virtualisation Support Services (VSS)

In addition, Stone’s Virtual Support Service (VSS) was also on-hand as part of the contract which meant that had Mark needed advice or support, Stone were at the end of the phone. However, the migration was done quickly and easily.

“The VSS team is a useful value added benefit for us,” said Mark. “They actively monitor the cluster and provide health checks on the cluster each month and advise me of anything I need to be aware of – Windows updates or faults for example.”

On one occasion, the VSS did uncover a RAM failure which meant that one of the sticks was faulty. However, thanks to the remote diagnosis, Stone were able to send out an engineer to site immediately. The server in the cluster was temporarily shut down, the stick replaced and then the server was turned back on without any downtime due to the redundancy built into the system.

“The initial fault was a minor issue that could have gone unnoticed and caused problems later,” said Mark. “However, thanks to our VSS colleagues at Stone, it’s like having an extra pair of eyes and hands on the team. This issue also demonstrated the significant processing power and RAM we had built in as part of the spec, losing one node meant we could still carry on as usual.”

Mark and his team have been so impressed with the performance of both Equinox and Stone support that when he needed to replace the server at a second school, Ramsey Academy, he knew that only a Stone Equinox would be good enough, and in this case the system was based on data requirements that only needed two nodes.

“From an IT perspective, we simply can’t fault Stone Equinox and the support we have from Stone,” said Mark. “The performance is outstanding and having Stone support if we need it is reassuring.  In fact, if anything happened to the IT team, the Trust know that they can ring Stone and they will be able to deal with any problems in our absence.  Having such a first-class system and support structure means we can turn our attention to other parts of our job. It’s one less thing to have to worry about.”

Stone provide an extra layer for IT support which picks up issues and deals with them right away

Equinox cannot be beaten on cost or performance

Mark Fuller, Network Manager

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