David Clearman and Lynda Gray streamlined the Deerfield-Windsor school’s infrastructure by implementing blade servers.

Apr 13 2009

A Data Center Turns Inward

The Deerfield-Windsor School's data center consolidation succeeds by making better use of its resources.

The Deerfield-Windsor School’s data center consolidation succeeds by making better use of its resources.

Students at Deerfield-Windsor School have been largely oblivious to the data center consolidation project that is transforming the school’s technology infrastructure, says Lynda Gray, the school’s director of technology. And that’s a good thing.

“It’s been a seamless transition,” Gray says. “There have been almost no problems, and some students might not even realize that they have much faster access to data.”

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Gray has plenty of experience with technology changes at Deerfield-Windsor, where she has been a business education teacher for 35 years. “I’ve been here from the manual typewriter, through electric typewriters to networked computers and the Internet,” she says. Along the way, Gray earned her current title by learning the skills to manage emerging technologies as the school needed them.

But most of the credit for researching and implementing Deerfield-Windsor’s move from a disparate aggregation of physical servers to an IBM blade center running VMware virtual machines goes to David Clearman, Gray says. Clearman became Deerfield-Windsor’s IT manager and resident technology expert three years ago, freeing Gray to work closely with students and teachers using technologies as learning tools.

A Technology Tradition

Deerfield-Windsor, a college preparatory K–12 school in Albany, Ga., serves about 850 students on two campuses. The school has always recognized the importance of providing up-to-date technology for its students, Gray says. There are about 400 PCs in use at the two campuses, including three fixed computer labs, two PC carts and two mobile classrooms at the Upper School, as well as a fixed lab and a mobile PC cart at the Lower School.

Deerfield-Windsor places a high priority on integrating computer skills into all kinds of classroom work, Gray says. She cites examples of journalism classes creating blogs and wikis, and even very young students using the Internet and digital materials in their lessons.

Like many schools and districts, however, Deerfield-Windsor’s technology infrastructure had been cobbled together piecemeal over time. As the school’s need for applications and services grew, servers multiplied, as did space, management and integration problems, Clearman says.

By fall 2007, Clearman began researching strategies to streamline the IT infrastructure in order to provide users with more services and higher levels of availability. A secondary aim was to reduce the footprint of the servers in the data center to ease the space crunch, he says.

“I was tired of getting phone calls when I was on vacation because there was no access to an important system,” Clearman says. “It made sense to grow inward rather than outward. We had no room to grow outward, but we needed more services. And because some databases and applications don’t always play nice together, we needed a way to separate them without just buying more and more hardware.”

Blade servers were a possible solution, Clearman found. He also looked into creating a virtualized server environment in the data center, which promised to further reduce hardware, operating and energy costs. With virtualization software, a single physical computer can host multiple virtual machines, with each of those potentially running different operating systems and multiple applications.

The combination of an IBM BladeCenter and VMware virtualization technology quickly emerged as the right match for Deerfield-Windsor’s IT infrastructure needs, Clearman says. To make sure, he downloaded a trial of VWware and built a test network in February 2008 to put the software through its paces.

By March, Clearman and Gray had secured the support of the administration and the board of directors to pursue the data center consolidation. Clearman ordered five HS21 blade servers and an IBM BladeCenter chassis on which to mount them, along with a 3-terabyte IBM DS3300 iSCSI storage area network to accommodate growing data storage needs.

A Plan for Now and Later

Each of the blade servers has 8 gigabytes of RAM and runs on dual quad-core Intel Xeon processors. The IP-based SAN facilitates storage consolidation and single-point management and is scalable to more than 5TB of capacity. On the software side, Deerfield-Windsor bought five instances of VMware Infrastructure Enterprise V13, as well as VMware vCenter Server (formerly VirtualCenter) software to manage the virtual machines.

The new data center architecture, including Cisco Ethernet switch modules, accessories and support/service contracts, represents a substantial investment for Deerfield-Windsor, but Clearman estimates that it will pay for itself in five to seven years.

Giving the go-ahead for the project was not difficult, says Assistant Headmaster Larry Collins. The cost was reasonable for the benefits offered, and the new data center provides for Deerfield-Windsor’s present and future technology needs, he says.

“We’ve learned that the technology we thought we wanted for the future five years ago is not what we want today, and what we need today will be different from our needs five years from now,” Collins says. “We want the flexibility to change and continue to provide the highest level of technology to students.”

EDTech Quick Poll

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that data centers with computing, network and data storage equipment consumed about 60 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity, or 1.5 percent of the total U.S. electricity bill, in 2006.

Do you currently monitor the electrical consumption of your computer systems?

88% - No
9% - Yes
3% - Don’t know

Look at All Ways to Plan Data Center Consolidation

Common sense and taking a long view of both educational and technology needs are crucial to the success of a data center consolidation project in any school or district, says K. David Weidner, president of Capital City Technical Consulting.

“You’ve got to think about technology that will support the way you want to be providing education and doing business several years in the future, not just improving the way you do it now,” he says.

Weidner lists some key considerations regarding data center consolidation projects:

Bandwidth: Less complicated to assess than other issues involved in a consolidation, the importance of fast, fat data pipes is sometimes overlooked. A small school or district can get by with 100-gigabit switched Ethernet, but a large dis- trict will need more, and bandwidth requirements will grow for everyone in the future.

Expertise: Few small schools or districts have the kind of IT knowledge and experience David Clearman brought to the Deerfield- Windsor project. Any district contemplating a similar initiative must assess available skills and the cost of filling any gaps.

Future educational needs: Demographic issues such as shifts in enrollment will affect technology needs, and new uses of technology will have an even greater impact.

Future administrative needs: As the ability to gather useful information about students grows, so does the need to manage, secure and back it up. What technology will be needed to streamline the business process of educational administration? Is the school trying to eliminate paper purchase orders or take other steps to go green?

<p>Paul S. Howell</p>