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How to Manage the Data Crunch

IHEs of every size are finding solutions to their server and storage needs that require less manpower to maintain and that create fewer headaches.
University Business, Feb 2005

The justification behind the uses of servers on college and university campuses is as simple as "more is never enough."

Servers--the software and hardware that store data and handle its processing--are often known by their end users mainly as the sources of blame for various computing failures. "The server's gone down" may be the single best-known phrase in information technology (IT). But schools are relying on their servers to do more than in the past, especially in the area of storage, which they look to as a path to the paperless office they've been promised for more then a decade by the apostles of high technology (see below).

The result is that information technology departments are using servers that are easier to maintain than earlier generations, cheaper to manage, provide more capacity for today's tasks, and will grow with the organization's needs. Hardware and software vendors have provided technology that replaces expensive servers with ones that are more flexible and cheaper to buy and maintain.

Few organizations understand the need for huge amounts of server capacity like research universities. They rely on the ability to create, analyze, and store images, computations, and data on a vast scale.

At the University of Houston's Advanced Computing Research Laboratory in Texas, a variety of academic units at the university are able to get resources for computer and computational science research. It uses 60 HP zx6000 workstations with dual 900 MHz Itanium 2 processors and an HP rx5670 Itanium 2 four-way server with 1 GHz processors, all running the Linux operating system. With this setup, the center achieved new heights of performance speed, all in a setup that allows it to be flexible to serve its diverse and changing user needs.

The switch from four independent
servers to a single server is expected
to save Austin Community College
about $50,000 a year.

Princeton University (N.J.) took a different route to outfitting one of its own research centers. The Center for the Study of Brain, Mind and Behavior (CSBMB) uses a 64-node G5 Xserve cluster from Apple to handle its image analysis and simulation modeling. Though it is housed in the psychology department of the university, it is an interdisciplinary facility that touches on many academic areas, including chemistry, computer science, applied math, and more. "We are really an imaging facility," says Randee Tengi, CSBMB system administrator. "People collect huge amounts of data, then they go back to the lab and analyze it."

To store the vast quantities of images needed for work in simulation and analysis of neuroimaging data, CSBMB uses an 11-terabyte SiliconServer from BlueArc Corporation. (A terabyte measures the storage volume; one terabyte is 2 to the 40th power, or about 1,000 gigabytes.)

When the center opened six years ago, every user (there are now about 100) used the same machine that ran the imaging software. "We still wanted a central processor for parallel jobs, so we needed a cluster machine," says Tengi. "We wanted all of the data on one file server so users could also access it from their desktops." As a result, the center's technology lets them use their own desktop computers (whether they run Mac OS X, Windows, or Linux operating systems) to access the image data from the central file server.

" The biggest challenge
in terms of storage
is there's never enough."
-Laura Hunter, University of Pennsylvania

Though server power is the name of the game at CSBMB, manageability is near the top of Tengi's list of benefits she's derived from the new system. The center has limited resources for administering its technology, so she appreciates having a system that is easy for her to maintain and easy for the end users to operate.

Austin Community College (Texas) worked with IBM in an effort to better serve its growing student enrollment, up more than 19 percent since 1993, which has increased the amount of data that the IT department must manage and support. The school specifically wanted to increase the speed of its web-based and campus-based services around the clock.

The school implemented an enterprise server consolidation project that combined several applications from four independent computer servers to only one IBM server, the eServer pSeries 670 running AIX 5L. The switch is expected to save the school approximately $50,000 a year, especially in the area of student grading. In addition, faster online processing has allowed faculty to submit end-of-semester grades via the web, rather than on optical scan sheets.

For some users, the pain point is keeping the darn thing running. The students at the Yale Daily News needed a system that not only is easy to use--especially in the late-night hours when the paper is assembled--but is easy to maintain. The paper has no dedicated IT staff; instead, it relies upon a part-time consultant and its own part-time photo editor, Nathan Francis, a computer science major at Yale University (Conn.).

In January 2004, the paper updated its Apple servers and operating systems to take advantage of new features in publishing technology. "We'd had some problems," says Francis. The Quark publishing system it was using "had some issues" with the server, and stability problems sometimes led to the loss of articles. So along with the adoption of Adobe's InDesign publishing software, the paper upgraded to two dual 1.33 GHz Xserve servers and the Mac OS X operating system for the servers and the client computers.

The stability issues disappeared, as did the problems with the publishing system. But the ease of use has been one of the biggest benefits. "These Xserves have not crashed," says Francis. The paper is now looking at purchasing another Xserve to host its website.

The University of South Carolina Spartanburg also touts the ease of managing its e-mail system for staff and students after adopting Microsoft Exchange 2004, running on 52 Dell PowerEdge servers. The system replaced a web-based e-mail system that proved to be slow and difficult to manage. Not only did the school get the collaborative features of the Exchange system, but it has weathered a computer virus attack that the school's network staff believes would have knocked out its previous system.

John Burton is UB's West Coast correspondent.

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