New data center solves problems, opens doors

After four years of investigating, planning, politicking and decision-making, UM has a new data center. It doesn’t look like much from the outside—a big white box sitting beneath a slanted metal roof near UM’s heating plant. It’s what will happen inside the box that will be remarkable.

“We’re going from arguably the worst data center in higher education to perhaps the best,” says Tony Jablonski, Associate CIO for IT’s central computing services. “We're the first university in the United states using this particular modular data center.”

VIDEO: Installation of UM's modular data center (:48)

Video produced by CommScope


The “Data Center on Demand” modular data center is manufactured by CommScope. Jablonski said that when the decision was made to go with a modular data center two years ago, the technology was on the cutting edge. Now it’s not. The U.S. Department of Energy, the military, Google and Facebook are among users of the technology.

Jablonski will move administrative computing systems into the new data center from the basement of the Liberal Arts building over winter break. He’s moving out of data center space built in 1972. That space, Jablonski says, is rife with problems.

“There’s no secondary cooling. No generator. It’s highly inefficient. In water use alone we’ll save $41,000 a year.”

The new facility will be remarkably energy efficient. It takes advantage of what we have in Montana . . . lots of cool air. Instead of using air conditioning, the units use outside air in cold months and evaporative cooling in hot months. When heat is needed, that comes from the equipment running inside the facility. 

“A number of things converged to make this work,” Jablonski says. “One is the environmental factor. Two is the ability of newer equipment to run at higher temperatures. And three is virtualization. We have a shrinking footprint.”

When the project was approved two years ago, Jablonski figured that administrative computing would take up 12 of the 16 racks in the new facility. But virtualization efforts since then have drastically reduced the amount of hardware needed to run those systems. Jablonski expects to fill seven racks instead of the anticipated 12, leaving more than half of the capacity of the data center for new opportunities.

UM Chief Information Officer Matt Riley says that one opportunity is consolidation of campus data centers. IT’s 2012 strategic planning efforts found that there were nearly 500 physical servers scattered across 23 data centers on campus. Riley points out that UM has earned thousands of dollars in rebates from Northwest Energy for consolidating servers, and there are more rebates available.

New opportunities to support research computing

John McCutcheon, assistant professor of biology, came to UM four years ago with colleague Jeff Good to do genomics research. Their work involves large-scale sequencing and massive datasets.

“We’ve spent a lot of money on computational infrastructure in our labs,” McCutcheon says. “We have four decent-sized machines that get heavy use. These things are not trivial to keep going. They get constantly hammered and things break.”

McCutcheon says he has grant funding for additional computing, but no rack space to put new machines and no organized way to help researchers maintain these machines. 

“It’s been interesting to try to figure out ways to grow this and maintain this,” McCutcheon says. “As it is now, it’s not a sustainable model for us.”

Biological Sciences chair and Associate Dean Charles Janson says there are a number of researchers in his area doing work that defies old-fashioned data analytics.

“We’re talking about needing computers that have 2-4 terabytes of RAM just to maintain all of the data structures they need to look at,” Janson says. “It’s a really daunting sort of computational problem.”

Janson has worked with Riley and Vice President of Research Scott Whittenburg to help identify funding sources for a research computing specialist position that can support the IT side of research computing.

“I recognize needs and resources and I’m trying to get them together,” Janson says. “I see it as a roadblock to success for my faculty and a problem I want to solve. It’s a great problem to have because we have young, dynamic faculty who are forcing us to grow.”

Riley says the new data center represents the first time that central IT has had space for research computing, but it’s not just about how we use the data center. It’s about how we organize around research computing efforts in general. 

“The focus is on shared resources, including physical infrastructure and the people who can help researchers gain access to these resources, Riley says.” We have a group that wants to be collaborative and sees the benefits of shared resources. The culture at UM will allow for this to take off and be great here.“

- Gordy Pace,