Datacenters | Feature

Taking College IT Out of the Hardware Business

Babson College in Massachusetts has overhauled its back-end computing operations with a $1.7 million "datacenter in a box." The move is part of what CIO Sam Dunn characterized as a long-term vision to shift his college out of the hardware business and bring greater agility to his IT team to address the college's growth and corresponding resource management challenges.

Datacenter Overhaul
Babson's new computer platform, known as Vblock, was implemented in partnership with VCE (a partnership between EMC, Cisco, Intel, and VMware). Dunn said the college did shop around for solutions before coming back to the group of vendors that was selling "a datacenter in a box." Key criteria for the new solution included the ability to provision quickly, address Babson College's resource management challenges, and scale up as the school grew.

"We don't know what's coming down the pike," said Dunn, "but we know that we want to be able to scale up to whatever it may be." As part of that plan, Dunn said, the college plans to virtualize all of its servers and is well on its way to meeting that goal.

"We want to get out of the hardware business and gain the ability to easily move our virtual servers into the cloud," said Dunn. "In the future--if it's financially beneficial and if it will result in better performance--we'll be able to slide servers out into Amazon, to Google's cloud, or wherever else we want."

The new setup has also allowed the college to go from roughly 15 racks in its datacenter (arranged in three rows of five racks) to a total of two. Two additional racks will be located offsite, according to Dunn. "That small, dense footprint in our datacenter was a real selling point for the new system," he added. "It helped us (identify) exactly what we were getting for our money."

Those solid value propositions helped Babson College's IT team through some of the tougher aspects of the installation--with the primary challenge being the fact that the school was an early Vblock adopter. "Ours was one of the first 20 installations," said Dunn. "One of the downsides of being one of the first is that you are working through all the bugs."

For example, once the system was built and configured at VCE, the next step was to set it up at Babson College's datacenter. "It's never as easy as it seems like it will be when you're doing your initial planning," remarked Dunn, who worked closely with engineers from Cisco and Intel to work through the bugs. "That's one of the benefits of being an early adopter."

Online since March, the project ranks as one of Babson College's largest IT initiatives. To other CIOs considering a preconfigured solution for their datacenter overhauls, Dunn suggested a plan of action that factors in multiple contingencies. "Plan for fixes," he said, "because solutions that are built offsite and 'dropped in' aren't always as simple as they seem on paper."

Securing Support
Securing $1.7 million for IT projects isn't easy in today's tight funding environment, and when the project itself isn't front-facing or "visible" to students and faculty, the proposition becomes even tougher. Knowing that hurdle would be in its path, the IT team at Babson went directly to its board of trustees and sold it on the school's need for a new back-end computing platform.

"We went all the way to the top with our presentation," said Dunn. A trustee IT taskforce was assembled, and chaired by Dunn and Babson College board member, Paul Chisholm. The taskforce looked at the college's current datacenter, identified its weaknesses, and developed a future plan that would meet the needs of the growing school. Presentations were made to the board of trustees focused on the fact that this was an infrastructure project that would result in improved end-user functionality.

The taskforce also highlighted the key challenges that the IT team was dealing with, including an inability to respond quickly to student, faculty and staff requests. "Our turnaround time really needed improvement," stated Dunn. Additional challenges included poor resource management and processing power (on the hardware side); ineffective datacenter space utilization; and high energy consumption.

"We knew that we needed to do a better job at resource management," said Dunn, "and that a new computing platform was necessary if we wanted to be able to support our virtualization, networking, computing and storage needs."

About the Author

Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at bridgetmc@earthlink.net.

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