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Florida data center prepares for hurricane season

In a move to better prepare for hurricanes, one of Florida's largest public school districts recently built a new disaster recovery site 13 miles further inland from the coast.

In a move to better prepare for hurricanes, which forecasters have predicted will likely swipe the Gulf Coast again this coming season, one of Florida's largest public school districts recently built a new disaster recovery site 13 miles farther inland than its primary data center.

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Still near Florida's southwestern coastline in Naples, the second facility will face less risk from flood damage and be another basket for its main site's proverbial eggs. The disaster recovery site will ease growing pains as the school system expands physically and shifts to lean more heavily on its IT, according to Tom Petry, network technology coordinator for the Collier County District School Board.

The project to erect a disaster recovery site at Palmetto Ridge High School is part of a larger, multimillion dollar effort to modify the county's communal IT infrastructure and networking capabilities, which support about 44,000 students and 3,000 teachers at 44 pre-kindergarten through grade 12 schools with services such as email, data storage and a 100% VoIP phone system. Petry said Collier is the 127th largest school district in the nation -- the top 1%.

Petry hired tech-retailer CDW to consult on the project and to help smooth the process in selecting and working with West Kingston, R.I.-based American Power Conversion Corp. (APC). Both CDW and APC helped design the new data center, as well as modify the school's primary site. Now, instead of a hodgepodge of racks and servers and an inefficient air conditioning system, Petry said he's swapping over to Hewlett-Packard Co.'s Opteron dual-core BL35P blade servers. Petry approximated that in six months, they'll be up to 800 servers on 31 racks at the primary site and 110 servers on eight racks at the secondary site. The servers will use APC's InfrastruXure rack enclosures with in-rack cooling chassis, UPS, power distribution, cabling and management software.

Petry said UPS for his cooling system was a big step up. The backup power for servers was redundant, but not his air-conditioning, which could falter and skyrocket the room's thermometer.

"It was getting very unfeasible, we couldn't figure out a way to power and cool the room. And it wasn't good for the equipment," Petry said. "Our hardware failures have definitely decreased as a result."

Collier County schools also faced another challenge, space. Each data center is only 1,000 square feet.

"We have a much easier time powering and cooling than we do provisioning more space," Petry said. "These (BL35Ps) are the densest blades you can get in the industry. AMD [Advanced Micro Devices Inc.] dual-core Opteron servers -- I think it's pretty much all we're going to buy from this point forward."

Collier County initially considered Emerson Electric, but opted for APC's design, as Petry said he's found raised-floor layouts aren't as efficient as in-rack cooling. Petry also said Emerson didn't have as strong management software as APC, which he appreciates for reasons such as its assignment of IP addresses to boxes, automatic email updates and remote management capabilites.

Other network plans for the county include trenching a 200 plus mile star-topology fiber network that will link each school to at least one other high school, Petry said, adding about 80% of that will be finished in six months. The aim is to provide redundancy alongside 20 Gbps of bandwidth to all high schools and 4 Gbit of bandwidth to elementary and middle schools.

Petry said longer term plans include expanding remote access to services already supported, like uploading/downloading files from anywhere on the network; data warehousing records, like report card histories and assignment information, as well as human resource and directory information.

"No more hiding the report card," Petry said. "You can just go to a Web page and pull that up."

Predictable risk

Forecasters recently have said deep-layer warm water temperatures (6-12 degrees above average) in the Atlantic, Caribbean and Gulf Stream off the coast of the Carolinas, Delaware and New Jersey make fertile soil for stronger and longer storms. And while this may not mean an imminent record season, they say it will surely be an active year in the Atlantic.

Ryder said especially in such an environment, disaster recovery sites are a necessity, even if what you're protecting is not in the same realm as businesses that can't downtime.

"Having an off-site backup gives you another ability to recover more quickly should a primary site get toasted," Ryder said. "For the education system, hours instead of days is probably fine. It's not a business continuity issue, it's DR [disaster recovery]. For secondary schools, if they can deal with snow days in the Northeast, they can afford a few hours of downtime."

Still, public utilization of high-end IT at the subcollege level is relatively new, and as technology such as network storage creeps its way in, additional steps will become more needed as students and staff become more dependent on the technology, Ryder said.

"If you start using IT as part of the activity, and as part of that process you become more reliant, you aren't just able to say 'Oh we lost everyone's homework.' That would make for some upset students," Ryder said.

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

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