Cool school

Bryant University sees a 20% drop in data-center power costs by consolidating servers and using in-row units to cool them down

Bryant University drops data center power costs by 20% using IBM blade servers and APC in-row cooling units instead of CRAC units.

When Bryant University wraps up its proof-of-concept analysis of its new data center - a next-generation, blade-server-based computing facility with in-row cooling - it anticipates no surprises. The school expects to see energy savings of about 20%, or as much as $20,000 a year, compared with its old setup. That's what the results of the analysis, expected out within weeks, should show, says Richard Siedzik, Bryant's director of computing and telecommunications services.


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Bryant is working with its primary vendors, IBM and American Power Conversion (APC), to document the efficiency of the new data center's computing and energy infrastructures. In December, it installed IBM's recently updated Systems Director Active Energy Manager software to determine specific energy savings. With the software, Bryant can monitor energy use, and with that data determine the best way to deploy workloads or cap power use to prevent cost overruns.

Bryant, a private school in Smithfield, R.I., powered up the $900,000 data center last May. Representing the latest in modular design, the data center lets Bryant add server, storage and network capacity as needed. That sort of dynamic capability is the hallmark of today's universities. As elsewhere, the 3,600 Bryant students come predominantly from the Internet and cell-phone generation - now they're all into social networking through MySpace, Facebook and the like, too.

"Every time students come back from semester break, they come back with more and more mobile devices," Siedzik says.

The new data center is helping IT keep up with the crazy demand - while maintaining highly efficient computing and power infrastructures.

Richard Siedzik

Bogged down by inefficiencies

Bryant's IT department provides each student with a laptop computer and has made wireless Internet access available throughout the 420-acre campus. Bryant also has converted to an IP-based campus telephone system; in the wake of last year's fatal shooting rampage at Virginia Tech University, it also set up an IP-based emergency notification system.

As computing demand surged from such initiatives as these, Bryant's infrastructure - servers scattered about in various campus buildings - became increasingly inadequate. "We spent most of our time managing around our shortfalls and our inefficiencies," Siedzik says.

Consolidating IT resources in a new data center made good sense, but one challenge loomed: The ceiling heights at available campus sites were too low for a traditional layout of servers and storage with a raised floor and a plenum beneath for cabling and air circulation. Among all participants, only IBM submitted a design taking this limitation into account, Siedzik says.

IBM's design features BladeCenter servers and in-row cooling in which APC cooling units are placed between racks of servers. (Compare Blade Server products.) In-row cooling differs from the more traditional approach of placing computer room air conditioners (CRAC) around a data center. The problem with the CRAC approach, Siedzik says, is that sometimes the units work at cross purposes - one unit might be cooling the air while a second dehumidifies it and a third humidifies it.

By comparison, an in-row unit provides "precision cooling." If the server next to it heats up during operations, the in-row cooling unit cranks out cooler air, then dials down when the server slows down. "If more cooling is called for in a rack, only those cooling units within that row ramp up. They're independent, and very precise," Siedzik says.

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Precision cooling was particularly important because of the blade servers, he adds. Their compact design, compared with traditional rack servers, means there's less space inside a server for airflow and more heat is generated.

More power, better efficiencies

By replacing older servers scattered around campus with new blades matched with in-row cooling, Bryant added processing power while reducing energy use. Siedzik estimates that the university's old, decentralized system drew about 60 to 70 kilowatts of power altogether. The new 500-square-foot data center is designed to provide as much as 60 kW, but for now consumes 43 kW, which means there is room to grow and still be energy efficient.

Aside from the new data center, Bryant already had adopted virtualization, which lets it increase server utilization rates and reduce the total number of servers needed. Server utilization has grown from roughly 10% to about 55%, which itself is a form of energy savings, Siedzik says. He also estimates that standardizing on operating systems and software applications, as well as other efficiencies, has reduced operational expenses by about 30% from before the upgrade.

Siedzik is confident that the numbers will show Bryant's project was a sound investment for the school and its students, faculty and parents. "I think directly they benefit because we can reduce our overall costs, and that impacts students," he says. "Indirectly, we are more environmentally responsible and we can provision more quickly as demand [grows] for more computer services."

After all, another semester has just started.

Mullins is a technology writer in Santa Clara, Calif. He can be reached at rjmullins5@comcast.net.

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