Universities live on data; it’s central to everything they do, so they are understandably wary about entrusting it to a third party offsite.
“The issue of ceding control is tricky,” said Peter Ritz, CEO and co-founder of Keystone NAP, a third-party multi-tenant data center in Pennsylvania that serves institutions and companies in the Northeast. “Administrators ask themselves, ‘Do I want to rely on someone else for something that is so mission critical?'”
At the same time, changing expectations among university constituents are forcing schools to rethink their approach to data storage. “As a university, everyone depends on your systems being up and running,” explained Ritz. “The consumerization of IT has set the bar pretty high for everyone to drive high service levels, and universities are finding it difficult to attain those levels on their own.”
For data centers, the keys to high service levels lie in 24/7 availability and connectivity, guaranteed via built-in redundancy. As schools in the Northeast discovered during Hurricane Sandy, for example, loss of electricity at the data center—needed to power the servers and provide cooling—can effectively shutter a campus.
“Even though learning happens in a classroom, the rest of it happens online: the research, the homework, and everything else,” said Ritz, who noted that most universities have no more than one or two links to the electrical grid, whereas Keystone NAP has five. “If you’re not available, resilient, and reliable from an online perspective, it’s very hard to run a university.”
Unfortunately, building the kind of scalable infrastructure and multiple redundancy needed to ensure 24/7 uptime is an expensive proposition. Not surprisingly, many schools are deciding that building and running their own data center is neither cost-effective nor part of their core competency.
“Data centers, especially at schools doing heavy computational workloads, require a kind of discipline that universities find non-core,” said Ritz, adding that it’s seven or eight times more likely that a customer today will contract with a co-location provider than build its own data center. “When you look at the kind of capital expense and commitment needed, it all makes sense. Many schools find it much more productive to invest in more sophisticated labs or research facilities.”
Modularity has been around for several years, but it’s gaining traction as new, more reliable configurations come on market. The concept is simple: Customers maintain their servers in their own self-contained storage units which are then plugged into an established infrastructure—described as a “chassis” by Ritz—which provides redundant power, cooling, and connectivity.
Need more storage? Simply plug in another unit. This approach can provide a trifecta of benefits over old-style university data centers: Improved data security, greater reliability, and rapid scalability.
A modular data center is only as good as the underlying chassis, however. For starters, the physical site must be secure, protected against flood, fire, earthquake, and intruders. Second, it must provide multiple connections to independent power sources. Third, it must be well networked, with access to redundant connections to major fiber routes.
For its modular storage units, Keystone NAP utilizes what it calls KeyBlocks, manufactured by Schneider Electric. The modules come in 22- or 44-rack increments, with the smaller of the two units occupying approximately 1,000 square feet. “The benefits really are in the ability to deploy very quickly,” explained Ritz. “If you tell somebody you can get 1 megawatt to 20 megawatts’ worth of workloads staged in three months, people don’t believe you can do that.”
As for what happens in a university’s storage units—and who has access to the data, whether physically or remotely—it’s completely up to the school.
“We think about it in terms of a private vault at a bank,” said Ritz. “The security equipment only authenticates the people who are authorized to be there. It’s not us unless the university has contracted with us for managed services.”