Steve Bowes-Phipps

IT systems in Universities � case study

IT manager Steve Bowes-Phipps reveals how the University of Hertfordshire has upgraded to meet the demands being placed on academia's data centres.

Think of a data centre, and one run by a large business will most likely spring to mind. However, data centres also play an important role in some very different environments. ICT in universities, for example, has to cope with student needs and heavy usage, storing academic R&D data, and even supporting spin-off companies still based on campus.

Each university's requirement is unique both in its technological focus, and also in its size, shape and age. Uniqueness brings with it special challenges for the data centre managers, who are finding the need to deal with an ongoing growth in technology, in turn leading to increased power and cooling demands. They have to find solutions to these issues, and have to deal with the constraints a university environment puts on them: space, ageing and architecturally challenging buildings; even the fact that many big projects can only take place during student holiday time.

Every site is different, and so each project needs a bespoke solution. E&T visited a UK university that has recently undertaken data centre projects to look at the unusual issues it faced.

Eco overhaul

What began as a regular data-centre refurbishment turned into a standard-setting 'eco overhaul' for Steve Bowes-Phipps, data centre manager at the University of Hertfordshire, based near Hatfield. Although the institution's data centre had been built in 2003, Bowes-Phipps discovered that it hadn't been designed to allow for the rapid changes in technology that had occurred over the last few years.

'Technology has become more compact, dense, and therefore it's putting out much greater levels of heat which require more effective cooling,' he says. 'The original data centre just couldn't cope with these kinds of demands' – being driven by a student body of 27,500, and 3,000 staff.

Bowes-Phipps began looking at a straightforward update of the centre, with a small budget to meet any extra expenditure. It would have remained as just that had he not come across the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) which had put out an institutional innovation call for funding, as it wanted a university to become an exemplar in terms of creating a 'green' data centre. Winning the funding effectively doubled the project's budget, but also gave Bowes-Phipps three objectives that had to be met. The main one was to produce an outstanding green data centre that other institutions would aspire to replicate.

Part of the funding agreement was that the team had to plot the project's 'journey', so that other data-centre managers could see why it made certain decisions and the things the team learnt along the way. This Bowes-Phipps did in the form of a blog, which continues to be updated as small changes and tweaks are still taking place.

The ultimate objective was to make sure the team was not distracted from the original purpose of the project. This was to refurbish the data centre so that it could cope with the growth of IT equipment, and would give the institution capacity – with sufficient power and cooling – to support the university for at least ten years.

Hunt for green IT expertise

Bowes-Phipps admits that at the beginning he did not know quite where to start: with a professional background in IT operations, he felt he needed to refresh his knowledge of current-generation green IT solutions, and so investigated offerings from major IT players like HP (Hewlett-Packard) and Oracle/Sun.

'I asked how they would go about creating a green data centre,' Bowes-Phipps recalls. 'They gave us a few hints, and said 'if you want more you need to write us a big fat cheque'! We didn't have much more to start with, and if they require a large chunk of it [up front then] we [would] have got even less; so we decided to embark on our own research.'

Nonetheless, the university has a two-vendor server strategy that includes solutions from both vendors: Oracle/Sun providing enterprise systems and database, while HP supplied the blade servers and SAN storage. Virtualisation is via VMWare Vsphere 4.

The university's network infrastructure is based on Cisco routers and switches. Bowes- Phipps and his team embarked on a round of visits to other universities and commercial data centres, went to conferences, read specialist literature, and subscribed to various RSS feeds: 'We tapped all the channels, including personal networking so we could find out what was out there and what limitations people had come across.

'We found there wasn't much out there for small data centres, and work in the larger centre space was not relevant for us because it did not scale down, or it was too expensive. We also learnt a lot more about what not to do than what to do.'

Off the back of all this research, Bowes-Phipps decided to go for a design and build contract where he wrote a detailed invitation to tender to 17 companies, which stated all the requirements, and how he wanted them delivered in terms of functional components; in his words, 'You throw it out to the market and say 'give me some solutions''.

Green credentials

Four pitches were selected out of respondents. With a focus on sustainability he then challenged the suppliers about their environmental record. There were further challenges for those interested in the work, including a need to rule out building work, and therefore deal with limited space.

'There's a lot of embedded carbon in building walls or compounds, [so] we did not really want any building work to take place,' Bowes-Phipps explains. 'We had a limited plant space on top of our building. Our estates department really didn't want us to go building at all outside of the generator compound because it would detract from the attractiveness of the building itself.

'The academic year at the University of Hertfordshire brings multiple cycles of high-volume activity that require us to be available at all times during those periods – or risk significant business damage. These events include Clearing, student self-enrolment, exams; and there are the usual academic deadlines of government HESA returns, and financial year-ends.'

Unfortunately, Bowes-Phipps says, there are no periods of the year now where there are any breaks in demand. Courses run all year round: 'The academic year got squeezed tighter a few years ago when exam re-sits were moved closer to the end of the exam period and conference services tend to make good use of our IT resources at weekends and during holidays – in fact, any time when the undergraduates are not using campus.

'It stems from this that when we need an outage that may affect an entire campus we spend time negotiating with academics, conference services, the university sports and leisure centre, administrative departments and estates, to ensure minimal impact.'

The new data centre has also enabled Bowes-Phipps to update the thinking about how the university's server estate is managed. 'There is a culture of academics wanting to maintain ownership over the systems they use,' he explains. 'We are breaking this down – especially with virtualisation. Servers belong to the university, and the trend these days is towards 'lights-out' data centres where the server is rarely visited in person [by the data owner].'

In the end Bowes-Phipps went with data centre design and construction firm Future-Tech: the only contender to come in under the specified budget, and to meet all requirements, as well as committing to a very low annual power usage effectiveness (PUE) of 1.22: this is the metric used to determine data centre energy efficiency.

Beforehand the university's PUE was on average 2.2-2.3 – that's on a par with the global average – meaning this new centre has already demonstrated cost savings of £20,000, says Bowes-Phipps; this figure is calculated to rise to £34,000. Now in action, the university is the first European educational establishment to comply with the European Union Code of Conduct for Data Centres, and has been recognised internationally for its energy-efficient approach.

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