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4/15/2005
11:25 AM
Darrell Dunn
Darrell Dunn
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Step Into The Future

New technology, security, and reliability requirements are changing the data-center infrastructure.

Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University worked with Liebert to get the cooling right for its computing cluster, one of the top 10 fastest supercomputing grids in the world, using 1,100 Apple Macintosh xServers with dual 2.3-GHz processors. The vendor designed a cooling system that sits on top of the server racks, which are arranged in alternating hot and cool aisles and dissipate a heat load of about 350 watts per square foot in the data center, says Kevin Shinpaugh, director of research for cluster computing at Virginia Tech. "If we tried to do it with normal floor AC units, we wouldn't have been able to complete the project," Shinpaugh says.

Ask Jeeves' Sampson isn't convinced such configurations are commercially feasible. "That level of cooling has never actually been proven out in any kind of real-world installation," he says. "You might be able to do that on a small footprint, but trying to do that in a 100,000-square-foot data center is a different issue. Secondly, the cost of that infrastructure would be enormous."

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To help combat potential problems, leading blade-server vendors Dell, Hewlett-Packard, and IBM have begun offering assessment services that assist customers in designing their blade environments to achieve the best thermal characteristics.

At consumer-goods manufacturer Newell Rubbermaid Inc., moving toward the data center of the future already has begun. Blade servers are in place and will continue to replace existing servers. "We'll end up with small mainframes because the new servers will be so dense and so hot," says Paul Watkins, data-center and network analyst at Rubbermaid. The blade architecture has resulted in more servers being packed into a single rack than ever before, needing more air flow than before. "We're fitting two servers where there was one so we can continue to grow," he says.

Yet that also means there's less space for air to move through, which will become a more pressing problem as more blade servers are brought in. Watkins looks forward to breakthroughs in liquid cooling that might alleviate the problem, such as integrating these units right into the server, where they won't consume precious data-center space. "And then it will come down to the density of the server meeting a price point," he says.

chartWatkins expects to be able to have input into how his company might take advantage of those future breakthroughs, since he has never felt left out in the cold when it comes to decisions about the IT architecture that will affect data-center operations. While 27% of InterUnity's survey respondents were concerned about the lack of communication between IT and facilities departments, and 26% cited poor communications with senior management as an issue, Rubbermaid operations are structured in a way that fosters dialogue. Senior-level executives say what they want to accomplish, and Watkins and his fellow IT staffers aim to make it work. But Rubbermaid has a flat organization, so anyone can address a concern or an improvement to Watkins' boss, the IT manager, who "can get straight up to the CIO," Watkins says.

Similarly, at investment company the Vanguard Group, communication is key to optimized data-center operations. "We have full-day sessions within IT" about data-center issues, says Bob Yale, principal of technology operations at Vanguard. Spending and technology issues go all the way up to chairman and CEO John Brennan, who has a well-deserved reputation for being hands-on with technology and the costs of running it.

It's not uncommon for the associated capital costs of boosting reliability, availability, and security requirements to start at $100 million. At Vanguard, security is a priority, requiring the company to automate checking for vulnerabilities and looking for unapproved changes to baseline configurations, says John Samanns, principal of technology operations, architecture, and planning. The company also uses proactive monitoring tools and third-party service providers that are paid to test the Vanguard infrastructure for vulnerabilities, Samanns adds. "We keep a dashboard and have a line of sight to the chairman about security," he says.

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