Interview

Sustainability in the Data Center, Part I

Part One of a Two-Part Q&A on Sustainability with Gordon Wishon

Campus Technology: As a CIO at Notre Dame, are you seeing increasing demands on your data center?

Gordon Wishon: I'm the Chief Information Officer here at Notre Dame, but I also have Associate Vice President and Associate Provost titles, indicative of my roles in support both of the administration and the academy--and now, increasingly in support of a growing research program, as the university is strategically focusing a great deal of effort in growing the size and scale of its research programs.

Those strategic objectives of the institution are changing the nature of the demands on the IT organization, and we are facing these challenges in an era of significant economic challenges. At the same time, we're trying to focus on sustainability and preserving the environment. This all places a significantly different and sometimes new set of challenges on the IT organization, as it does at most educational institutions.

As our research program grows we are anticipating significant growth and demand for data center provided services. Even if we didn't have such a focus on growing our research programs, we would continue to see growth in that demand, driven just by the need to continually update and improve the productivity of our administrative processes and the services that we provide to our students and our faculty.

CT: Is IT support centralized at Notre Dame?

Wishon: Here at Notre Dame we have historically been much more centralized in our IT support model and strategy than has been the case at most research universities, such as my previous institution, Georgia Tech, where the responsibility for IT service and support was very highly decentralized. In recent years there has been a growing trend back toward centralization, even at those institutions that are highly decentralized.There's a recognition now by the deans and the heads of academic units of the true cost of providing IT services for their faculty, particularly services that are increasingly required to be administered in a more professional way so as to address concerns about security and risk to the institution. At Notre Dame we are hopeful about developing a support posture that effectively captures the best of both centralized and decentralized environments. I'm currently collaborating with our Vice President for Research, as well as the deans, to determine the best support model going forward.

That presumes that there will be research assets potentially within the data center supported by the IT organization or by a group, associated with or attached to the central IT organization, that has its focus specifically on the growth of research dependent upon computational resources. Either way, we are anticipating growth in demand on our data centers and handling the growth in a way that is both cost effective and sensitive to environmental concerns is really front and center for us right now. 

CT: And how does virtualization fit into this picture?

Wishon: Virtualization, of course, is a key technology that we are using to address some of this. We've done some work to estimate the growth of demand for services, and the growth of the number of server platforms within our data center. Our projections suggest that at the current rate of growth over the past two years--even without factoring in a significant increase in demand driven by research--we are going to see a growth by 2010 of the numbers of servers on our data center floor from the current 558 to more than 700 servers. If we were to meet all these growth requirements with the former architectural approach of standing up individual servers and application suites to support each new application, we would have 700 individual platforms or clusters of platforms, with the concomitant increase in power consumption and cooling requirements.

Two years ago, we began to experiment with virtualization in our data center, and in fact, of the 558 servers that we have on our data center floor today, over the course of the past two years we've actually reduced the number of physical servers to on the order of 360 or so. So, today, the 558 servers are distributed across the 360-or-so physical platforms, which represents about a 34 percent virtualization rate.

CT: What will you gain from doing that?

Wishon: What we're hoping to achieve as we grow to the projected 700 servers by 2010 is a 50 percent virtualization rate. If we can get more aggressive with our virtualization as we continue to grow, we hope to meet this growth demand of 700 servers without substantially increasing the number of physical platforms on the floor beyond the number we have in place today.

That has some obvious effects on reducing power consumption and the demands for air handling and cooling. If we can achieve a 50 percent rate of virtualization by 2010 we will effectively flatline our growth in consumption of power and cooling, with the effect of avoiding over a million dollars in annual costs.

[Editor's note: The conversation with Gordon Wishon continues in two weeks with environmental implications and more on sustainability.]

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