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Colleges and universities manage a multitude of challenges, especially during a pandemic. From abrupt shifts to online and hybrid learning to the everyday support of evolving digital technology, university IT teams need a resilient and adaptive data center infrastructure to pivot and scale with changing stakeholder needs. The recent data center modernization project at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte offers a practical roadmap to other educational institutions navigating these waters.
As the assistant vice-chancellor for UNC Charlotte’s enterprise infrastructure, my team and I took on modernizing the university’s data center infrastructure. At the start of the project, compute resources were spread across the 1,000-acre campus, with academic departments running their own IT operations, in some cases with their dedicated staff.
One data center on campus was connected to an offsite backup facility in Durham, hosted by a third-party provider. Latency between the two facilities was a problem, failover wasn’t optimal and data replication could be handled more efficiently. If the campus were to suffer a sustained disaster, these conditions would compound restoration of data and IT services.
Compute resources were scattered among 90 buildings on-campus, which created security, efficiency, energy consumption and monitoring issues. While these small data centers might have hundreds of servers with individual power and cooling, they lacked the uninterruptible power supply (UPS) systems, generators and backup systems typically found in an enterprise-grade data center.
Addressing these concerns, our CIO proposed a data center modernization plan to consolidate the compute resources used to support our 30,000-student campus into a state-of-the-art data center. Campus leadership supported the idea. The next step was determining whether existing space on-campus could be renovated into a data center or if our need warranted new construction.
A data center modernization solution
UNC Charlotte was building a new science center and part of that project was putting up a new regional utility plant (RUP) to supply heat, cooling and electricity to a specific section of the campus.
We were able to capitalize on the new RUP building project with the inclusion of a 3,000-square-foot data center. A clear benefit of aligning with the RUP was our ability to utilize its heating/cooling/power resources.
UNC Charlotte chose an EcostruxureTM data center solution, construction began in 2018, and our IT team moved into the new building in December 2020. UNC Charlotte worked with technology partners WESCO Anixter and Schneider Electric on the project. The data center equipment was custom ordered, and when construction inevitably fell behind schedule, WESCO Anixter volunteered to store the equipment until the building was ready for occupancy.
With energy efficiency and sustainability as a focus, NetShelterTM hot aisle containment was utilized to allow high-density deployment and saving space, energy and resources. The EcoStruxure data center now serves as the main compute resource for the campus, and the old data center is now its backup. In addition, data is backed up in the cloud to provide another level of disaster recovery protection.
The benefits of a consolidated data center
In a college setting, space is at a premium. As peripheral compute resources like these are moved to one central facility, we can capture and re-use the space. Further, resource consolidation for a highly efficient data center reduces the overall energy usage at UNC Charlotte. Security has also improved as there are fewer physical sites that either cyber or human threats could attack; the new data center is inherently more secure than a closet in an academic building because access can be restricted.
UNC Charlotte’s data center is monitored, managed, and operated using ExoStruxure™ IT from Schneider Electric, which provides intelligent monitoring of the heating, cooling and electric infrastructure. We now have the ability to spot anomalies in temperature or electric currents and we can proactively identify issues before they cause disruptions. Schneider’s EcoStruxure platform, including IT Advisor, will be integrated into the broader campus automation and log management systems.
A successful design for future IT needs
The long-range plan is to methodically consolidate computing resources into the new data center, except for highly customized apps that make more sense to keep within a specific academic building. Through the use of server virtualization technology, the new data center will handle most workloads that were previously running in these small data centers distributed throughout the campus.
This data center consolidation project puts UNC Charlotte in great shape for the future, allowing us to scale and bring in equipment as needed. As a bonus, we gain peace of mind that power and cooling solutions are running smoothly. We will be well suited for the next several decades to meet the campus’s innovative and expanding IT needs for the student population, faculty and staff.
Jesse Beauman is the Assistant Vice Chancellor for Enterprise Infrastructure at UNC Charlotte. He is responsible for wired and wireless infrastructure, servers and storage, security, policy/compliance and high performance computing. Prior to UNC Charlotte, Jesse worked for UMBC’s Division of Information Technology as the Director of Infrastructure. Those responsibilities included servers, storage, high performance computing, client support, classrooms and AV technology as well as security for the infrastructure. At UNC Charlotte, Jesse has led initiatives that include DR implementation, campus wide wireless replacement, cloud computing and Security. Jesse holds a B.S. and M.S. from UMUC in Information Systems and Cyber Security.