University Campuses Can Benefit From Data Center Consolidation

Data centers are becoming the critical link for a variety of university operations.
New technologies are allowing for remote access and global distance learning is becoming commonplace. As a result, data centers are demanding more respect and attention.

Many institutions are seeking cost-effective alternatives to consolidate and improve data center operations.

Universities are increasingly finding that even though there is a main campus data center, separate departments choose to have their own server rooms. These spaces often occupy valuable on-campus real estate, limiting flexibility.

Typically run by a staff member with an interest in computers, server rooms are often initiated with a grant program or project of need determined by an individual. The overarching theme is that those who run server rooms are certain that they must have direct access to their equipment. However, direct access is rarely necessary with today’s computer technology.

Separate server rooms can create multiple problems for an institution. Since the educational and office buildings that house these rooms were not designed to handle the power load required for the latest technologies, they can tax the building’s systems.

If construction is scheduled for a facility, server managers may stop a power shutoff because it will interfere with their work. They may also protest department relocation and expansions because that would require the server room to move.

Even if a server is funded through a research grant, it will be up to the facility managers to handle the complications they cause to the building operations, and possibly even assist with IT issues.

If a school wants to keep multiple server rooms, decision makers must realize that each separate system may use different technologies that are hard to maintain or standardize. These smaller systems are an inefficient user of power and computer processor time, especially when compared to a large data center.
Although it is difficult, if a university can force its departments to relocate their servers to a central location, it will benefit the institution overall.

RTKL has designed a departmental server room concept that should ideally be located in an area conveniently accessible from the campus.

Here, a co-location environment is created in a university’s data center, with separate compartments for each department’s equipment and computers are locked in cabinets or cages as security requires.

If its servers can be moved to one location, a college will be able to better plan for the future as campus space will be more flexible. They will be able to enforce a network standard and have only one type of cooling and electrical infrastructure to maintain.

As a benefit to the departments, their computer equipment will run more reliably and efficiently, and grant programs will still be back-charged for power, space and cooling.

Co-location style data centers usually present an “if you build it, they will come” scenario. A few departments will commit to the concept early because they need to expand, but the majority of the departments typically resist. Once the new data center is running, however, they will see the value to their group to move.

Existing Issues

Whether or not a university pursues a co-location type of data center, there are a number of topics to consider regarding expansion or new construction.

University networks support all kinds of functions that may range from payroll and transcript data to live video seminars from a professor halfway across the world. With this type of personal information and educational material on the network, there is an increased need for information storage that is accessible in real time.

These requirements force most colleges to continually expand their data centers. Unfortunately, most are also unable able to expand because of poor planning.

Often, existing data centers are located in the basement of a building or adjacent to other programs that are hard to relocate. Many are poorly located for service and have very little security beyond a swipe-card lock. The typical existing computer room was designed around low-density computer and storage equipment. Today, space is at a premium and new technology can put more computer power in a smaller box. However, the new technology also generates more heat, which requires a more advanced cooling solution and more power. This leads to hot spots and power reliability problems if solutions are not put in place.

Data center master planning

A design team can evaluate current equipment and space to determine a growth profile for the future.

This profile will lead the institution’s needs into the future in terms of servers, networking and storage, providing cooling load and power requirements. Such information is critical in determining when a new data center is needed and how much funding is necessary.

Another evaluation is needed to determine the level of reliability required by each system. The goal for a data center is to maximize reliability and minimize dollars spent, while maintaining future flexibility. To do this most efficiently, each system should be supported to its level of recommended reliability.

A data center planner can determine what level of redundancy is needed and the best way for a university to achieve that redundancy. Some solutions will involve using an existing data center as a backup system, which can provide more reliability at a smaller price tag.

During the master planning process, other goals can be established for the new data center, including using green building techniques. A green data center may seem like an oxymoron, but LEED points can be achieved with data centers and there is the potential to reduce energy costs.

Selecting the Right Site

The site chosen for a data center can greatly affect its value to a university. Because on-campus real estate is often in high demand, a remote data center is highly recommended.

Today, connectivity is strong enough for institutions to use remote locations to utilize even the most intensive applications. 

The benefits of a stand-alone, remote data center include better security, cheaper land and the preservation of valuable campus real estate, and potentially more opportunities for future expansion.

Factors to Consider

Often important factors to evaluate for a new data center, whether it is remote or on campus include:

• What is the proximity to quality, well-maintained electric substations? Neighbors can affect power. A data center should not be located near heavy industrial sites, since their machinery tends to create a dirty power situation that can shorten the life of equipment.

• Is there dark fiber, or fiber optic cables for lease, available in the area? These are critical to transport information to the site.

• Is the site big enough to accommodate the school now and in the future?

• Is there a reliable water source for the cooling towers, which require an immense quantity of water? Municipal water is required, with some amount of water storage on site.

• Are there any freight train lines, flood plains or fuel refineries nearby? These can harm the site, so the risks must be assessed.

• Is the location convenient to the main campus so that staff can easily service the facility?

• How do the upfront and operating costs compare to a facility on campus? Land in the suburbs may be cheaper than near a downtown campus, but power rates may be more expensive.

At the end of the master planning process, a university should have a good conceptual plan, site plan schedule and budget. This plan should allow for large-scale growth while meeting the stated goals for the building.

Expanding or creating a new data center is a complex challenge. As institutions expand, those that prepare carefully for the future will be positioned to succeed operationally and financially.

This can only be accomplished by targeting a university’s needs, whether it’s merging departmental servers into one location, creating a new data center that can support the existing individual infrastructures, or working within the existing spaces.

Those facilities that assemble the right team — including the architectural firm, the engineering firm and the information technology specialists, among others — will be designing a successful path for years to come.

If a university can force its departments to relocate their servers to a central location, it will benefit the institution overall.