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Data Center Modernization

the program is giving IT staff more time to do work that directly supports the U's mission

By Ben Neeser


February 22, 2011

A survey completed by IT leaders across the University in 2010 found over 4,000 servers located in more than 200 locations throughout the U of M system. In response, the Office of Information Technology (OIT) launched the Data Center Modernization Program in mid-2010 in order to provide the University of Minnesota with a number of significant benefits including cost savings, better security for private data, reduction of the U's carbon footprint, and more. If widely adopted, the program will give IT staff more time to do work that directly supports the U's mission.

The program is a collection of 11 different projects, all with the aim of modernizing and securing the University's main data center, as well as consolidating and virtualizing hundreds of servers.

•    Virtualization: Virtual hosting, a service that is now offered by OIT, allows 20–30 servers to be hosted on only one physical server, thus dramatically eliminating server and space requirements. For example, nearly 3,000 servers could be housed in just three computing racks.
•    Cost avoidance: If the University accomplishes its goal of virtualizing 75 percent of its servers and eliminating 1,500 physical servers, there will be no need for a new, $20 million brick and mortar data center.
•    Reduced costs: Potential annual savings in the multimillion-dollar range are expected for the University.
•    Reduced risk: Physical data and equipment will be securely stored in a "lights out" facility.
•    Improved computing uptime: Modernization efforts, including adding a new secondary site for critical applications and data, will improve stability in OIT-managed sites.
•    Green IT: The University can reduce its carbon footprint by 7,500 metric tons (900+ average homes) or over $700,000 per year in electricity. In addition, the program eliminates the energy and materials needed to produce 1,500 servers acquired every four to five years, as well as the toxic waste from disposing of them.
•    Space utilization: The University can reduce the number of rooms used to house servers by 99 percent, freeing up over 200 spaces for other purposes.
•    Strategic server purchasing: The University has established strategic pricing contracts for purchasing Dell and IBM servers with the goal of standardizing server models, thus reducing the number of server manufacturers on campus from more than 50 to a few.

What’s in it for me?
Besides creating efficiencies for the University, the program creates opportunities for individual departments, colleges, and administrative business units. By leveraging common good services that are provided at no cost, faculty and staff can be more strategic about resource use. Instead of running servers and supporting infrastructure, IT staff will have more time to do work that directly supports the academic and research mission of the University.

In the past few months, departments, colleges, and administrative business units from around the University have begun to see the benefits of these practices. William Bear from the Humphrey School says that his relatively small department has very limited IT resources and must focus on activities that add value to the college.

“The more time I can free up, the more time my staff can spend on developing and supporting critical applications and working with customers,” says Bear. Server hosting is a commodity that doesn’t really add strategic value unique to the college. “A server is a server,” he says. “It just needs to meet the business need.”

Curtis Coffer and Cau Huynh from Alumni Relations explained that for them, moving to OIT hosting services was primarily a cost saving measure. “Two years ago, our unit was forced to cut approximately 14 percent of its operating budget,” Coffer explains. “I looked around, and I asked ‘why does an organization with 25 staff need a server closet?’ There had to be a centralized resource we could leverage.”

There were other benefits to making the switch, says Coffer. “What happens when [the system or network administrator] wants to take a vacation? I wanted to move to a more structured, standardized support environment that wasn’t dependent on one person." Other advantages, says Coffer, include disaster recovery and data backup. “We are now at a tremendous advantage in using the central systems. OIT provides backup and disaster recovery services. It was time for us to stop doing them ourselves and focus instead on the activities that are core to supporting alumni.”

What you can do
If you are thinking of purchasing a server for your college or department, wait! First make sure there is not a free service that will work for you. If you determine that you must purchase your own server, please purchase a standard U of M server through UMart. You will receive competitive pricing (some models are discounted up to 40 percent), and may qualify for Tenant Hosting in a University Data Center, and access to future OIT system administration support if your server meets minimum standards.

More background information about this and other IT strategies can be found in a July 2010 feature, "Collaboration is the key to IT."