Deakin shrinks data centre as university expands

Deakin University has met increasing IT demands by overhauling its servers and embracing hybrid cloud, according to the university’s infrastructure services director, Craig Warren.

The Unified Computing System (UCS) from Cisco has also left Deakin University ready for future applications that may be needed by the institution’s growing number of researchers, Warren said at the Cisco Live conference in Melbourne.

In 2009, Deakin had 30,000 students and was the 25th largest university in Australia out of 35, said Warren. It has since seen a 5 per cent yearly increase in students and now has 44,000 students, moving it up to number 13 out of 39 universities in Australia today.

The university has also seen increasing demand on IT from teachers, researchers and students, said Warren. He recounted an anecdote about one researcher who sends boats offshore with telemetry gear to map the sea floor.

“With his telemetry equipment, he collects about 1.5TB a day. He usually goes out for about 20 days and comes back to shore with 30TB of data that he puts through some GIS processing.”

About four weeks ago, Warren said the researcher called to tell him that he had upgraded the equipment to HD and had 60TB of data to process. This morning, he told Warren he has added a fleet of drones to take additional pictures of the coast.

While university staff has increased by 300 each year, Warren said IT staff has remained about level at 250. “We’ve had to become much more efficient.”

Back in 2009, in the data centre, “all of our focus was on quality,” he said. “Uptime was the only word that really mattered.”

The data centre contained 450 “pizza box servers,” and was buying a “six-pack of servers every month,” he said. “We order a six-pack because … new client needs were coming through the door on such a regular basis that we might as well order two or three extras, because we knew that we would use them.”

In that environment, it usually took eight weeks from the client’s request for an application to its provisioning, he said.

Deakin went to the marketplace to replace its server infrastructure and adopted UCS in 2010. In addition, the university signed on VMware and now has a 96 per cent virtualized environment, he said.

“These days with our virtualized environment with UCS and VMware, we can provision a virtual server in one to ten minutes, or a couple of clicks of a button.”

While it uses 1200 VMs today, Warren said it could provide up to 1600 VMs if needed. At the same time, Deakin has reduced the number of racks in its data centre from 11 racks to four. And it has reduced its number of servers to 88, he said.

"Our server infrastructure is rock solid now,” he said. “It’s flexible. It’s agile.”

All this has meant Deakin can quickly serve spikes in demand, including the data-heavy sea floor researcher. “We’re able to just scale up instantly and serve him,” said Warren.

Patching services is also a much speedier process, said Warren. In 2009, Deakin was patching 350 servers twice per year and each time required 15 people and four weeks.

Today, with 1200 VMs, he said “it takes two people a weekend to watch the patching go through because it’s all automated.”

That change in particular has freed resources to work on other projects at the university, including the rollout of new education tools, he said. They have included big data analytics to help students do better and an app called Deakin Sync that lets students track their progress at the university, he said.

In this hybrid cloud environment, the IT department has taken on the role of services broker, said Warren.

“Previously, we might have been more in the just straight infrastructure service provision. Now, we’ve got to be the broker of services and decide whether to use our private cloud or our public cloud.”

Adam Bender flew to Melbourne as a guest of Cisco.

Adam Bender covers telco and enterprise tech issues for Computerworld and is the author of a dystopian novel about surveillance. Follow him on Twitter: @WatchAdam

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