University Breaks All the Storage Rules

Georgia State University is running (mostly) on its own steam.

Like people, jobs and most other things on Earth, data centers evolve. And, as they are modernized, some things are improved more than others.

In an IT era of ever-more-powerful data servers and storage machines, Georgia State Universitys cutting-edge data center is a real-world example of change for the better.

Here is a data center that has improved its output and service levels, yet has cut back on the amount of electricity it takes from the national grid by as much as 80 percent.

In fact, the Atlanta institution, which opened its first computer center in 1968 with three Unisys mainframes, has evolved its central data center into one that can almost stand on its own feet powerwise. In the most fundamental terms, Georgia State has acquired and installed enough self-generating power to meet all the universitys daily computing requirements.

Only about 20 kilowatts of the centers power comes "out of the wall," and that is used to run three unprotected, nonproduction racks of servers designated for testing and other special projects, said GSU Technology Operations Center Manager Jerry Allen.

GSUs main data center servers are lit up by three powerful UPSes (uninterruptible power supplies), one of which uses old-fashioned kinetic energy supplied by a large flywheel, and two cogeneration plants that turn heated, compressed air into additional electricity through a turbine. Think of a grandfathers clock pendulum: Its the same general idea, with the 800-pound spinning flywheels from Active Power needing little maintenance and requiring only that their ball bearings be replaced once every four years.

And this is not a small data center. Some numbers put it in perspective:

  • Sixteen full-time employees man the center. The staff does all its own racking, stacking and cabling; the only thing the center contracts for is electrical work.
  • The data center operates 24/7, 365 days a year, and is staffed even on Christmas Day.
  • The center is responsible for network monitoring of all end nodes, which include all wireless access points on campus, all networked devices, all host servers, all UPSes, the schools Avaya telephone system and an additional VOIP (voice over IP) system.
  • With 5,500 square feet of floor space, the center holds 95 racks of servers and 550 hosting servers.

The center runs about 30 business-critical applications, including Banner, the universitys online registration software, and Solar, the student database.

"[Solar] has all of [the students] grades, their financials, all their registration info, the course catalog, faculty information—all kinds of good stuff," Allen said.

The center also hosts a 10-node IBM P575 clustered supercomputer, with four or eight CPUs on each node. The supercomputer is being used for research projects such as SURAGRID, or the Southeastern University Research Alliance Grid system. There are 27 of these clustered systems networked among a group of research institutions in the Southeast. The computers are linked into a grid system to share a massive amount of computing power if needed.

GSU uses Spectrum as its financial system, PeopleSofts human resources application, a Novell backbone for the schools e-mail services and a number of other applications.

"On the servers, were running Windows, Solaris 8 and 10, Unix, GroupWise for e-mail and StorageLocker," Allen said. Storage­Locker allows students and staff members to store a predesignated amount of data on the network storage machines.

The center even provides access to the Georgia Public Library System, Allen said, so that students can borrow books from other libraries if the GSU library doesnt have the right book at the right time.

"This is the heartbeat of the university," Allen said. "This is where it all happens. We monitor access to the Internet; we monitor whats coming in and whats going out."

Modest beginnings

The GSU data center, situated on the first floor of its downtown location, was never intended to be the computing center it now is. Its location was lent to the IT department by the campus library, which had been using the space as a book repository.

To help power the systems and applications it hosts, the center once relied heavily on batteries—big batteries.

"We had a whole bunch of APC Symmetra [batteries] all over the data center, and we had two, three or four racks connected to each Symmetra," said Allen. "There was no such thing as an EPO [electrical power-off] button because when you hit the EPO, all it did was make all the UPSes come on."

Staff members also were storing batteries, which carries risk.

"We needed to get out of the battery business," Allen said. At the same time the university was growing, its computing requirements were increasing. Allen and Assistant Data Center Manager Melissa Lamoureux saw that they needed to increase the power intake.

"I started looking around, and I found the Active Power CoolAir [compressed air] UPS—no batteries involved, no storage, no maintenance, a lot of cost savings. You could get it on an annual usage plan. You didnt have to buy it. So we got a 100-kva, 80-kw unit. We put it in about 18 months ago," Allen said.

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Chris Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger is Editor-in-Chief of eWEEK and responsible for all the publication's coverage. In his 13 years and more than 4,000 articles at eWEEK, he has distinguished himself in reporting...