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Data centers get religion

Would you house a data center in a diamond mine or an old chapel? These organizations did, with great success.

By Barbara Darrow
October 9, 2007 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - Are you looking for a new data center? One that promises an abundant supply of energy and offers the latest in cooling technology?

You might want to take a gander at what Boston College (BC) is doing with its new data center. Not only does it provide the latest amenities, but it boasts its very own patron saint watching over the racks of blades, storage devices and power gear.

The center, which moved to the empty St. Clement's chapel last year, features 16 stained-glass windows, one of which depicts St. Isidore (a.k.a. San Ysidro). Isidore of Seville was credited with creating the first encyclopedia, and the Vatican recently gave him purview over the World Wide Web. Now Isidore looks down at BC's glass-enclosed control center from his stained-glass perch.

Boston College's data center, with stained-glass windows and its own patron saint.  
Boston College's data center, with stained-glass windows and its own patron saint. (Click image to see larger view)

BC had to make the move after outgrowing its old digs at the O'Neill Library.

The chapel, on BC's Brighton campus, has a space advantage over the library. The library's fifth-floor data center was a nonexpandable 3,000 square feet. In comparison, St. Clement's Hall is about 4,500 square feet -- enough space to add a backup generator.

In densely populated areas, IT pros must often make a hard choice between retrofitting existing sites or building a new one where land is at a premium and construction costs are high. In this case, BC's CIO found in the chapel exactly what she needed: A big chunk of space, unused and available.

"The space was so monumental, we had to take advantage of it," says Marian Moore, BC's vice president of information technology and CIO.

The challenge then was to retrofit the space for IT needs while respecting its aesthetics. To take best advantage of the chapel while preserving the windows, the architects designed a glass room -- a box within the box of the chapel -- for the operator control room.

BC removed some mainframes and started using blade servers instead, about 300 now. The old building's infrastructure couldn't have handled the blade servers' load, or the heat it would generate, Moore said. "Blades may be smaller, but they put out a lot more heat. The other major problem with the old space was there was no backup power." The latter issue was huge a couple of times when construction work cut the main utility power line, Moore says.

St. Clement's is not the only religious-themed working data center. Barcelona's MareNostrum supercomputer center, created by the Spanish government and IBM, is in a 1920s-era chapel at the Technical University of Catalonia. The chapel, secularized years ago, was available and viable -- with some work -- says Juan Jose Porta, chief architect for high-performance computing at IBM's Boeblingen Labs in Germany, who led this effort.

Back in 2003, the idea was to prove how quickly a blade-and-Linux-based supercomputer center could come together, Porta says. "We had a very tight schedule; we had to go from original design to up and running in nine months," he said.



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