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Data center consolidation drives server availability at Columbia

Data center consolidation: Columbia University recently consolidated five data centers to one with the help of Collective Technology.

Data center consolidation: Columbia University's molecular biophysics department recently consolidated its five data centers to one -- a move the school says increased server availability by about 30%.

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Hans-Erik Aronson, senior systems analyst/programmer at the New York City-based Ivy League school's Center for Computational Biology & Bioinformatics (C2B2), said maintenance and latency were the main drivers for reining in the data center sprawl.

"With inter-node clustering, the more hubs -- the worse it is," Aronson said. "Having it spread-out makes it much harder to maintain. We were looking for high-bandwidth, low-latency networking. With one location, it's there, it's now a lot easier to maintain, it makes it that much more solid."

Plus, the new facility would offer better power and air-conditioning, yielding "huge improvements," Aronson said. All hardware now rests in a 28-foot by10-foot data center, on a six-inch raised floor, in 10 cabinets with 10 kW assigned power to each, with backed up UPS power.

Even though the 200 plus servers in question -- mostly clustered Red Hat Linux machines -- resided relatively near each other, navigating urban pitfalls and relocating successfully over the span of a weekend was a scenario fraught with potential peril, Aronson said.

C2B2 researchers need 24/7 computer access. Plus, high-performance computing programs could take weeks to finish processing. So the schedule was very tight. "No computers -- no work," Aronson said. "We're completely dependant on computers. If you log in on Christmas Eve, there's likely to be someone online."

Still, the benefits of change outweighed the risk of interruption. To get to there, though, would have been impossible on their own, Aronson said.

Before the move, Columbia shopped for outside help and found Austin, Texas-based Collective Technology, which steered every aspect of the relocation and spared the wits of a department wary of downtime, Aronson said.

"With our time window, we didn't want to risk it, we wanted a company who has handled data center relocations," Aronson said. "It wasn't that they were widely different [from competing vendors], it's just that Collective gave the right type of impression. They were trustworthy …We could never have accomplished this in 72 hours without them."

For Columbia, Collective provided site preparation, a walkthrough to make sure everything is in place, security, cable components and more. Then, Collective started the actual moving: wrapping the hardware, hiring union movers in New York City, transporting, reinstalling arranging the recertification process with hardware vendors who often monitor moves for reasons such as to track any damage that might be covered otherwise by warranty.

Ed Taylor, Collective's CEO, says much of the value of its relocation services lies in its ability to ascertain an organization's needs -- something that is mishandled at businesses with isolated wings, or at universities whose cross-departmental communication can resemble the bureaucracy of a conglomeration.

"There are the IT guys who own some of this stuff, the facilities guys who handle the space and the power and the heating, and the finance guys who have to pay for all of this at some point," Taylor said. "Oftentimes these three groups are widely distributed and don't communicate very well. And this is regarding data centers being built today, which likely will be the most expensive real estate [per square foot] that any company will ever own."

The other factor: Experience.

"We've made many mistakes over many years, and I would not like to relearn them every time," Taylor said. "There's a lot of 'gotchas' that you will encounter -- and you cannot encounter them at 2 a.m. That is not the time to find out that you've got an eight-foot rack and a seven-foot elevator. You're got to anticipate anything that's going to be a show stopper for you. These moves happen on such a tight timeframe. Any delay in the window will translate into a major outage during business hours on Monday morning."

Industry analyst Rich Ptak of Ptak, Noel & Associates in Amherst, N.H., says third parties have become a common and sound strategy in an industry returning to the data center.

"It's just not cost-effective to maintain the expertise when it's not part of your business," Ptak said, referring to the benefits of consultants to manage relocation efforts. "But there could always be an accident in transport. Or faulty construction. Substandard materials. Inadequate deployment. Or there's always the risk of having somebody wire things backwards and having something blow up on you. Even with someone like Collective. People make mistakes, they're human."

Let us know what you think about the story; e-mail: Joe Spurr, News Writer

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