Cuts jeopardize data overhaul

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The University’s main data center, which houses crucial information ranging from course syllabi to payroll information, is slated for an array of infrastructure improvements, but some are now in doubt after University officials announced last month that the financial crisis had left funds scarce for the project.

University computing officials have identified more than half a dozen projects that could bolster the data center and reduce the risk of service disruptions.

But in its February meeting, the Corporation identified postponing improvements to the data center as a way to save money on capital projects with the University facing millions in budget cuts over the next five years, The Herald reported last month.

Shoring up the aging data center is a priority University officials identified in recent years, Executive Vice President for Finance and Administration Beppie Huidekoper told The Herald after the Corporation’s February meeting. But the current financial crisis means that other capital projects deemed more essential will need to proceed first.

The data center’s more than 750 computers are used to run and store information for Brown’s computing network, the Banner Web site, MyCourses, e-mail services and payroll operations, among other functions. The center is located in the basement of the Computing and Information Technology building.

But though the data center has filled the University’s needs so far, some of its components are outdated, and Brown’s storage demands are growing, officials said.

“These pressures are driving the need to increase the reliability and capacity of our data center space,” wrote Terri-Lynn Thayer, assistant vice president and deputy chief information officer for Computing and Information Services, in an e-mail to The Herald.

Some features of the data center also leave it vulnerable to the possibility of service disruptions.

“It’s a risk point,” said Director of Infrastructure Services Linnea Wolfe. “There’s weak links there.”

The center itself takes up 7,250 square feet in a windowless room full of consoles, cables and air conditioning units and is monitored 24 hours a day. According to Paul Kelleher, director of the data center, there are around 6,000 information-storing tapes in the center, which holds “terabytes and terabytes of information.”

The data center is connected to the University network by redundant feeds, which means that if “one goes down, there’s still another one,” he said.

The center also runs on two power feeds, one of which is an “uninterruptible power source” backed up by a series of batteries, Thayer said. But the other is simply the building’s “house power.”

“In the future, we are looking to build a facility where both power feeds are (uninterruptable),” Thayer said.

The CIT building was built 20 years ago, and some of the equipment in the data center is original to the building. The computing room air conditioning units, for example, are “way beyond their useful life,” Wolfe said.

“They could, at any point, fail,” Wolfe said.

To address concerns about the data center’s vulnerability, the University has been contemplating a range of projects. Two years ago, the University “began intensive planning studies” to find a location for a new data center, Thayer wrote in her e-mail.

According to Wolfe, the University is currently planning eight or nine projects to ease concerns about the data center, some of which are already under way. But others may not begin soon, and with some still unfunded the financial crisis may prevent comprehensive upgrades from proceeding quickly.

“It’s a question of getting funding and looking at different options. We will be making some of those (improvements) over the next few years,” Wolfe said.

The project that will affect the center soonest is an upgrade to a generator that serves both the CIT and the Sciences Library. Facilities Management will complete that upgrade in June, Thayer wrote.

“With this generator, the data center will have additional power backup,” Kelleher said.

In December, the University also hired Marsh, a risk advisory company, to make recommendations about a “business continuity plan” to allow Brown to continue functioning should something go wrong at the data center.

An engineering and design firm, idGroup, is currently preparing recommendations about how to shore up the facility over the next five or ten years.

“The idGroup recommendations will be available this spring and will be integrated with the Marsh recommendations serving as the basis for a proposal to the University senior administration and Corporation,” Thayer wrote.

According to Thayer, the best way to secure the information in the data center would be to duplicate servers and storage now in the CIT and store them at another facility off-campus.

But that option is unlikely, Thayer said.

“Clearly this is a very expensive proposition,” she wrote. “It is unrealistic to assume that all data processing conducted by CIS would be ‘essential’ during a limited-time disruption.”

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