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Powering a Data-Driven Campus

By Blake Cooper

Published July 9, 2014

Little known and rarely seen, UB’s data centers play an ever-expanding role in keeping our campus working.

Blake Cooper (UB Student, Class of 2016) is originally from Canandaigua, NY. He is studying Spanish, Linguistics and Comparative Literature, and beginning work on translating an Argentinian novel into English.

Originally known as 'machine rooms,' when computing was young and computers were massive and not networked, today's facilities house complex server and storage arrays, and the telecommunications equipment needed to link them together with the world. The name 'data center' caught on with the realization that these rooms needed to be specially designed to provide a great deal of power, specialized cooling, structured cabling, and stringent access controls.

UB, like many institutions, has doubled down on our data centers in the last several years-- in part because UB, like many institutions, has doubled down on data.

“These days everything runs on data,” James Giardina, Network Analyst for Network and Classroom Services, explained. “Everything from billing to grades, records, the whole operation. If it runs on a computer, on software, then it runs because of the data center.”

Leaps and Bounds

Not surprisingly, the demands on the data center are always changing, growing in step with the rapid pace of technology. Every upgrade highlights the need for balancing expanding needs with keeping energy consumption in check and information safe and secure.

As Director of Enterprise Infrastructure Services for UB, Saira Hasnain often finds herself performing this balancing act. “For storage and servers in particular, power consumption is a huge consideration,” Saira stated. She likens the process of shopping around for hardware to buying energy-efficient appliances for your home.

“We examine things like power consumption and sustainability, impact on the environment,” Saira added. The benefits of cutting costs on energy consumption over time, she explained, are compounded with a diminished overall impact on the environment.

With UB’s mission of environmental stewardship, this is crucially important. In his sixth year at UB, James Giardina has been working on ways to make the most of critical resources, and working with each stakeholder. "By working closer together," he told me, "we all greatly improve our energy efficiency and service performance goals."

“As our technology changes over time, so do our data center spaces and operations," James explained. "Data centers of today are controlled managed environments, with clearly defined organized structures that use science-based solutions. Each system works collectively to increase efficiency."

Going Virtual

The implementation of virtual machines—servers housed in the data center that departments from all over campus access remotely, as opposed to each having their own local machine—is another modernization that has helped to make UB’s data centers faster, safer and more efficient.

The push to virtualize servers started during the 2008-2009 academic year, beginning with a critical study of existing machines. “We looked at about 160 physical servers on campus, and on average they utilized less than ten percent of their capacity,” Saira explained.

"When you virtualize physical server machines," James added, "you're increasing energy efficiency through consolidation of physical hardware." The result has been a slowing of the rate of required room space of data centers and greater centralization of IT services-- which means less physical components doing more work while reducing the overall energy footprint.

Safe and Reliable

This centralization also brings added security benefits. Because the servers are now in one physical location, they’re easier to backup and keep secure—both processes in which UBIT invests heavily.

“You have to ‘war game’ a little bit and think critically to ensure service availability,” James explained. “You want to shoot for ‘six ‘9s’: the servers should be online for 99.9999% of the time.” This amounts to only about 32 seconds of downtime every year. “No downtime is our goal,” James said.

Backups of UB’s valuable data exist in several locations. Saira explained that the goal is “to avoid what we call ‘single points of failure’ by hosting mission-critical services” —email, Internet service, UBlearns and MyUB, among others—“in multiple places in the event of a natural disaster or physical attack on service.”

“Right now, we have three data center sites," Jim told me, "one here on north campus, another nearby, but off-site, and there is one on south campus." CIT is also exploring the possibility of adding another data center on the downtown medical campus in the near future.

Forward Thinking

Charged with keeping up with the pace of technology, the future is something the UBIT team are constantly considering. To James Giardina, the future means an even smaller, more power-dense footprint for the data center. “The pattern is that the equipment is growing more powerful, smaller in size and with greater scalability.”

“Right now, everybody is talking about the cloud,” Saira admitted, although she stressed prudence in making any sudden moves away from physical hosting of data on campus. “We need security and flexibility, and I’m not quite sure that the cloud computing business model is mature enough at this time to meet UB’s needs.”

“As always, we have to keep our eye on the horizon,” Saira said. “We think the best options for UB will only make sense when the risk and the cost can both be safely managed.”