Four datacentre revamp lessons from a university CIO

The influx of students means a demand spike must be managed

Datacentre operators have to deal with regular peaks in demand. Some are bigger than others, but the influx of students into colleges and universities across the country measures as a massive spike.

To better prepare for its own rush of 10,000 young men and women, Villanova University in Pennsylvania prepared all summer, starting with moving its data center to a third-party co-location site with its own IT facilities management.

In May, the IT staff completed the physical move, ending the hosting of servers that started when the school first dabbled with computing. (Servers used for research are still hosted in those departments.)

The focus of the move was to increase reliability and services, moving to a Tier-2-or-better facility, says Stephen Fugale, chief information officer at Villanova University.

"The intent here is that we're scaled correctly, configured correctly, with the right bandwidth connections," Fugale says. "My goal is that there is absolutely no issue upon return to school."

The datacentre effort was mirrored by a myriad of smaller efforts across the campus' information technology groups. Villanova created a new storage-area network as part of the move and continued to make improvements system wide. Nearly 80 percent of all administrative and academic systems reside in the data center, Fugale says.

"We are making changes to all the systems through the summer, whether it be releases, enhancements, new Web sites, additional functionality or systems being purchased," he says.

A week before school started, the IT teams froze the environment and locked out changes. Fugale shares the lessons learned from the project and move to new data-center digs.

1. Take your time weighing the alternatives

Fugale and his team took more than a year to investigate all options. Key issues included integration, reliability and cost reduction. For example, the school has to integrate more than a dozen systems with its data center, including the application for allowing single sign-on via a student's ID.

"We used every second of one year, not only to review alternatives ... but moving our entire computing platform required a tremendous amount of forethought," he says. "We had to virtualize more of our environment so I could shrink my footprint and make it cost effective."

Eight years ago, they had 175 servers sprawled across their data center, now about 70 percent of the approximately 100 servers are virtualised, he says. The majority of the new datacentre hardware, including the SAN equipment, is from Dell.

"Obviously, some of these moves helps me avoid future cap ex, I don't want to keep acquiring hardware if I can avoid it some way and improve my overall TCO (total cost of ownership)," Fugale says.

2. Let go

Eventually, Fugale's team decided that the best way to serve the university's information needs was to not run the datacentre at all.

"Running a datacentre to me is not a value add to our university," he says. "By using a third-party provider in a remote location, I have many options going forward. I have better disaster recovery. I can buy the backup service to the cloud."

Without increasing costs allocated to data center operations, Villanova improved reliability, availability and security of their datacentre facility, he says. In addition, the school has the ability in the future to expand or contract the data center based on needs.

"I could move my platform entirely to my vendor ... or I can keep migrating some of my software as a continuing evolution of a SaaS (software-as-a-service) model," he says. "I have great flexibility going forward."

3. Rethink which applications you'll host

What is true for the datacentre is equally true for many applications. Villanova outsourced its student email operations to Google, moving all its more than 10,000 students' email to Gmail. Research with students showed that 80 percent of students had a secondary e-mail account and, in 90 percent of cases, that other e-mail account was hosted by Google.

"Our real goal here is that our constituents - including students and alumni - wanted to have e-mail for life, and they really liked the Villanova.edu domain name," Fugale says. "To do that cost effectively it made sense to go to an ISP that could provide that capability. Not having Villanova manage email services for 105,000 alumni -- it's just not cost effective for us, nor could we cost effectively replicate the amount of storage."

While Villanova moved its students over to Gmail, it continues to maintain its own e-mail system for faculty and staff.

4. Reach your customers in the way they want

Dealing with students also changes the way that the Villanova IT team operates, Fugale says.

The first-adopter environment, for example, has impacted how they run their help deisk. The support group handles some 50,000 transaction every year, mainly using online resources and through social networking. Students are more apt to check their Facebook than their voice messages, and more likely to answer a text message than a call to their mobile phone.

"We found out that calling them and telling them by leaving a message on their cell phone that their PC is repaired--they were not picking up their cell phone," he says. "We do whatever is most effective for the community."

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