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Data centers decrease system downtime

Published: Monday, July 23, 2012

Updated: Wednesday, July 25, 2012 21:07


Roger Zhang -- THE BATTALION

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Services like Howdy Portal along with financial aid, grades, neo email, class registration and more are run by the University. Behind the scenes of these services lays an intricate network of servers, supercomputers, hard drives, cables and refrigerant that make the whole system work.

Texas A&M University has two tier-2-level data centers on campus: the main data center in the Teague Building and a smaller data center in the Wehner Building. These data centers house everything from student services to library resources. The main information technology department, Computing and Information Systems, oversees the main information technology infrastructure. 


Pierce Cantrell, Vice President and Associate Provost for Information Technology, said “[Computing and Information Systems] are responsible for campus networking, data center operations, help desk central, infrastructure systems and services, custom software development, administrative services like payroll and TAMU email.” 


Other departments support services like broadcasting, telecommunications and instructional technology. 


With so many mission critical services, both data centers are rated tier-2 data centers. Tier-2 data centers are the second lowest rating out of four levels. Requirements for a tier-2 rating are redundant infrastructure capabilities like power, cooling and an expected uptime greater than 99.741 percent. Uptime is the amount of time a service is accessible to all users.


“Both data centers have generators, uninterruptable power supply and the ability to run a long time without power,” said Cantrell. 


To achieve such reliability, the Teague data center houses a one megawatt backup diesel engine with enough fuel to run for one day, which can be refilled indefinitely, an uninterruptable power supply with 180 wet cell batteries to keep the data center running while the diesel engine starts up, and an uptime of 99.79 percent in 2011.


Data centers require a huge amount of power to run. Being green when it comes to data centers can help reduce costs and increase uptime. Companies like Google, Microsoft, Apple and Facebook house some of the biggest data centers in the world and find innovative ways to be green. 


“We just did a major $1.9 million cooling renovation in the Teague building and all the equipment that went in is a lot more energy efficient,” Cantrell said. “Every time we get the opportunity to be energy efficient we certainly try to take advantage.”


Cooling is one of the most difficult challenges to address when considering environmental impact. The Teague data center house 457 physical servers, two supercomputers and racks of networking equipment. When all of that is condensed together in a tight space, cooling becomes an issue.


John Rauser, associate director of operations and customer help, said “The thing with cooling a server rack is getting cool air where you need it.”


With the new cooling renovation, the Teague data center operates more efficiently while increasing uptime. 


“The cooling units are so much more efficient, they use much less energy. They don’t even have to run all the time — they cycle on and off. The old system we have run all the time at 100 percent. With these, we don’t have to do that they’re a lot more efficient,” Rauser said. 


The new cooling units pressurize the cool air to circulate cool air throughout the whole server rack and not just the bottom. With chilled water being pumped from the Central Utility Plant and the new refrigerant system, the duo cooling system in the Teague data center can maintain a more stable temperature.


Besides upgrading infrastructural capacity, virtualization is another way to reduce the environmental footprint. 


Virtualization is the ability to run multiple instances of an operating system. Virtualization reduces the physical footprint by consolidating multiple servers into one, optimizing both physical space and computing resources. 


“You can take servers that used to be one application in a 4U space, and now you can run several hundreds of machines in the same space.” said Cheryl Cato, associate director for infrastructure systems and services. 


A green data center is good for the environment, but losing critical systems, such as those well-earned grades, spells bad news for users. 


The Wehner data center acts like a backup by housing some systems for the Teague center. Although, relying on one backup does not guarantee safety. 

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