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Building a Consolidated Data Center

A research institution with 30,000 students, 10,000 employees, a medical center and 10 schools, Vanderbilt University generates and manages massive amounts of data. When our data storage needs expanded in the late 1990s at a rate of 1,000 percent annually, the university’s IT team quickly realized it must take definitive action.

The university was beginning to face the cost containment and technology management issues associated with maintaining several decentralized databases spanning university and medical center operations. While most universities that run teaching hospitals maintain separate IT systems, Vanderbilt found economy and efficiency in sharing systems while functioning as one organization across academic and clinical programs. To maintain our ability to meet the university’s IT needs, improve access, and lower costs, the IT team determined it must consolidate Vanderbilt’s vital data and storage infrastructure.

Integration was also a priority. Our legacy systems were unable to transform and organize data into the business intelligence the university needed. For example, Vanderbilt’s management could not effectively analyze and manage the costs of services provided by the university’s hospital, which accounted for 70 percent of the medical center’s expenses. Without the means to make data available through Web browsers, Vanderbilt's users also lacked easy access to vital information.

Deployment in the Next Five Years

Vanderbilt University addressed its data storage, business intelligence, and budget needs with Linux and Oracle technology. The implementation, launched in 2003, consists of a three-node data warehouse built on Oracle Real Application Clusters on Red Hat Linux teamed with Oracle Application Server. We use one three-server cluster for the production data warehouse and a two-node cluster for testing. If any server in a cluster should fail, the remaining servers continue to operate seamlessly, ensuring high availability.

Vanderbilt projects that the implementation will yield a savings of 185 percent during the next five years, taking into account the performance and availability of the new systems, and the efficiency gained in managing a single vendor’s system.

The new data warehouse system will eventually serve nearly all decision support needs for the university and its medical center. Currently, an elaborate labor-tracking application provides labor decision support management. System users can now easily extract and format vital data into reports for informed decision-making. Additional warehouse data includes alumni and fund-raising records, financial information, and academic and student records.

Modeled for Success

In 2002, the IT team created a five-year cost model and demonstrated, based on a five-year technology history, that trying to limit costs by buying incrementally would cause huge spikes in capital investments every few years. We would also lose productivity in trying to catch up. This reasoning resonated with senior administrators and won support for the project.

We chose the Linux operating system to reap the benefits of its low costs and scalability. The team determined that we could utilize three Linux servers for the price of one UNIX server. We also realized that achieving the required performance and availability from the university’s existing UNIX platform would be significantly more expensive than it would be in the Linux environment.

Vanderbilt also chose Oracle because the university’s studies proved the technology could provide savings up front in hardware costs and deliver additional economies over time.

New Application Server Improves Scalability, Simplifies Management

The need for higher availability, clustering functionality, and scalability drove Vanderbilt to select Oracle Application Server to replace our existing BEA WebLogic software. We found that Oracle offered greater scalability and simpler management capabilities. Capacity challenges, for example, are now addressed by simply adding a server to the environment and making minor configuration changes. Now, we can bring a server online in just a few hours with minimal system management burden.

The school’s new application infrastructure will have approximately 30,000 users, including students, faculty, and staff. We expect users to experience performance increases of up to 50 percent from using features such as Web caching.

The One-Enterprise Approach

While we considered many vendors for our data warehouse initiative, few shared Vanderbilt’s vision of a consolidated data center for university and medical center operations. The majority attempted to sell separately to the university and medical center. This represented a fundamental IT growth strategy stumbling block until working with Oracle, which took the time to recognize that Vanderbilt operates as one enterprise.

The university anticipates building on the benefits of a Linux-based environment by extending its power across all remaining databases. With the university’s data storage and processing rapidly expanding, we expect to add 20 processors a year—now a simple and iterative exercise.

Vanderbilt launched its Linux and consolidated database initiative to contain IT costs as systems scale and consolidate data for improved and secure access. Careful planning and analysis has built a solid foundation for future growth and allowed the university to maintain a single IT infrastructure across the academic and healthcare organizations.

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