University upgrade forced by power outage

When the lights went out in the capital last year, its oldest tertiary institute got an IT wake-up call

Victoria University’s IT department received a wake-up call on April 13 last year when there was a three-and-a-half-hour power outage in the Wellington CBD.

“It was,” says operations manager Phil Mansford, “very embarrassing for IT”. So much so that the university’s management group subsequently made just over $2 million available to upgrade the computer room.

Speaking at a recent CIO magazine lunch in Wellington, Mansford noted there was a lack of standards, with no one person being really responsible, and that things were out of sight and forgotten.

“Electrical practices were dangerous … Our safety people thought we should have been condemned … and server people were designing, building and testing in the operational environment.”

So began the upgrade of the room, but, rather than build a new room, the upgrade took place within the existing operational environment, with all the attendant difficulties.

Victoria University has more than 20,000 students, 2,700 staff and five satellite campuses. At the time of the upgrade, it had 150 Windows servers, 40 Unix servers, a Cisco network (with 480 devices), a 1Gbit/s backbone, 4,000 PCs and a wi-fi network with 200 access points.

“I defy anyone to write a business case for wi-fi, but everyone else has it,” Mansfield remarked during the presentation. “We still have some privately owned PCs that can connect, which is a weakness we have to overcome.”

Innevitably, there was a clash of culture about who wanted what between “free-thinking” academia and the process-driven IT world.

The computer room had been built in 1991 and lack of scalability was also an issue. There was no fire detection or protection capability either.

Initially, external consultants were brought in, but the upgrade job was given to just one consultant, along with the university’s network team.

Mansfield says support hours have grown dramatically from what used to be just normal business hours.

It was decided to purchase an 80kW power infrastructure solution from APC, along with branch circuit monitoring, 44 server and communications racks and equipment for load balancing. Seismic bracing has also been installed to protect against earthquakes.

“We now have centralised management of all the kit,” Mansford says.

“We’ve got another machine room, at Karori [the former Teachers’ College]. We can’t get cheap bandwidth there. There is also a small room at Rutherford House [in downtown Wellington].

“We’ve got integrated security and environmental monitoring,” says Mansford.

Previously, the university didn’t have a back-up generator, but that has been resolved, along with a contract with a diesel supply company. There are eight hours’ availability via UPS.

Mansford says there are plans, in the event of another outage, to be able to fire up a dozen or so PCs for essentials such as finance. There will be no power back-up for other PCs.

That said, Mansfield feels the university will be forced into installing UPS across the campus when it comes to replace its seven-year-old PABX system.

“But we haven’t found a business need yet for voice over IP.”

It was found during the upgrade that premises’ teams weren’t aligned with the 24x7 requirements of IT. It was also necessary to negotiate downtime with every academic school at the university, a reflection of the much greater use of computing in universities.

The project was completed on time in December, despite the need for some intermediate shifts of servers before they were installed at their final destinations.

“We can’t break down the budget, but you pay a premium [for that type of upgrade]”, Mansfield says.

“If we had to do it in the future, I’d just build a new room and move into it, but in our case the situation was so dire.”

At a glance

The 20,000-student Victoria University’s IT department was granted $2 million to improve its computer room after an outage

The challenge was to upgrade within the existing facility rather than build a new one

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