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The Path to the Cloud
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Indiana University's Dennis Cromwell says virtualization was an important stepping stone to building a private cloud.

Chris Bucher

Universities Begin Creating Paths to the Cloud

Universities are building private clouds to offer servers, storage and computer applications as hosted services.

posted September 30, 2010  |  Appears in the November/December 2010 issue of EdTech Magazine.

Universities are building private clouds to offer servers, storage and computer applications as hosted services.

When Indiana University embraced virtualization seven years ago, its IT leaders were early adopters of a technology that consolidated servers, improved energy efficiency and cut costs. Now the university is reaping new benefits by turning its virtualized infrastructure into a private cloud.

Today, instead of purchasing and managing their own servers, about 25 university departments rent roughly 400 virtual machines (VMs) and storage from the university's central IT organization. Departments can add or decrease computing resources as their requirements change and are charged only for the amount they use.

"A number of elements came together that made it the right thing to do," says Dennis Cromwell, the university's associate vice president of enterprise infrastructure.

"Virtualization was the key stepping stone. Several departments approached us and said, 'We could use a few servers. Could you run a virtual service for us?' The technology had really matured, and we had so much experience as early adopters that we could leverage everything we've done and provide a cloud environment."

Cloud computing is growing in popularity as universities seek ways to offer technology services more cost effectively. Some universities turn to the public cloud for hosted applications and services, such as e-mail. Others take advantage of virtualization to build their own private clouds, which lets them maintain full control of their infrastructure, analysts say.

By building a private or internal cloud, universities can offer computing power, storage and access to high-speed networks as a hosted service. That lets individual departments deploy new applications quickly without having to buy and install the hardware themselves. The university as a whole benefits because it can consolidate data centers, increase hardware utilization and reduce energy consumption, resulting in a more efficient IT infrastructure, easier IT management and cost savings.

"It provides more efficiency and smoother operations," says IDC analyst Katherine Broderick. "When you have a highly virtualized environment, it makes day-to-day management less of a concern and gives IT staff more time to work on other important IT projects."

Saving Money

For a private cloud to work, individual university departments must agree to give up some autonomy and use a shared tech infrastructure that is managed by the central IT organization. That wasn't a problem at Indiana University, where several departments among the university's eight campuses approached the central IT group in 2007 with the internal cloud idea.

The university's Enterprise Infrastructure Division immediately launched a pilot program, and it was so successful that it formally began offering infrastructure-as-a-service in 2008. Today, 1,300 VMs run on about 70 physical servers. About 400 VMs run applications from university departments that are taking advantage of the private cloud, while the remaining 900 VMs house central IT applications.

The cloud is built using VMware ESX virtualization software, a 250-terabyte Hitachi storage area network, Hewlett-Packard switches, Cisco Systems routers and IBM backup and tape storage equipment. The IT department, which refreshes servers every three years, purchased all new servers last summer. The cloud is housed primarily at a new data center on the Bloomington campus, but for disaster recovery purposes, servers and data are backed up at a second data center in Indianapolis.

The IT department uses several point software products to manage the cloud environment, Cromwell says. Customers can submit online requests for as many VMs and as much storage as they need, and most requests are provisioned within 24 hours. They can also purchase offsite data backup services in conjunction with or independent of the server and storage rentals, he says.

Indiana University benefits from the internal cloud in multiple ways. The IT staff in individual departments can test and deploy applications much more quickly and affordably. Rather than taking two weeks to purchase, configure, test and deploy a new server, departments can provision a VM within the same day or by the next day, Cromwell says.

Purchasing server and storage hardware – and sizing the equipment for the next four to five years of use – is an expensive upfront cost. In contrast, with the internal cloud, departments pay only a small monthly fee for the amount of computing power and storage they need at the moment, Cromwell says. Customers still have full control of their operating systems, applications and data, but they don't have to worry about managing and securing the infrastructure.

"The benefit is lower cost. And when a hard drive dies at 2 a.m., they don't get called. We take care of it," Cromwell says.

Consolidating department server rooms offers two additional benefits: It frees up space that can be turned into classrooms, labs or offices; and it lowers overall power and cooling costs because applications now run in a more efficient, virtual environment in the main data center.

So far, only a small percentage of departments take advantage of the private cloud – the number of VMs is expected to grow just 6 percent in the coming year – but Cromwell expects adoption will begin to take off as each department's servers need to be replaced.

"Most people who come into that environment are happy and say good things about it," he says.

Through application virtualization, Pepperdine students, faculty and staff can access apps over a private cloud whether they are using a Mac, Linux, Windows PC or a mobile device, says Thomas Hoover.

Photo Credit: Ethan Pines

Cloud Upgrade

The one-year-old private cloud at the University of California, Davis is so popular that the university's IT leaders have already upgraded it twice with new hardware.

The university, in Davis, Calif., experimented with server virtualization for several years. But with the main data center running out of space, the IT staff in June 2009 formally launched a private cloud that offers virtualized servers, storage and data backup services to individual university departments.

"When we started to publicize the cloud, it was standing-room only," recalls Peter M. Siegel, CIO and vice provost for information and educational technology. "We had associate deans and managers attend, and we explained that they could save money."

The campus community immediately embraced the cloud. Five months into the program, each of the five servers used to deploy the cloud was at 75 percent utilization. So last March, the IT staff invested in all new hardware – a blade chassis and five new blade servers housing 72 gigabytes of RAM each. The new infrastructure, able to handle 30 VMs per server, doubled server capacity, says Data Center Manager Dave Zavatson. Since then, the university has purchased two more blades.

Today, the seven servers operate 141 VMs for the central IT organization and 20 different departments. Some departments use a single web server. Others – such as the Graduate School of Management, which has 25 servers – moved their entire infrastructure to the cloud, Zavatson says.

Besides blades, UC Davis standardized on VMware vSphere virtualization software and a 50TB EMC Clariion CX4 Model 240 SAN.

The university's cloud services are flexible. Individual departments can maintain control and manage their own applications, or they can hire the data center staff to manage them, Siegel says.

Virtual Computer Labs

Other universities use virtualization to build private clouds that offer virtual desktop computers and applications to students and faculty.

North Carolina State University's Virtual Computing Lab (VCL) lets students, researchers and faculty remotely access computing resources and applications that are housed on servers at the Raleigh, N.C., university. The VCL, built in 2004, runs on open-source software and 800 IBM and Intel blade servers.

Through a web portal, students, faculty and researchers can request access to different computing environments, such as computers and servers. For example, students can request a VM that provides them with a virtual computer with a full operating system and the applications they need for their coursework. Available applications include simple office productivity to high-end CAD and statistical analysis software, says Marc Hoit, the university's CIO and vice chancellor for IT.

Users can reserve computing resources for later use or have them provisioned immediately. Faculty can reserve resources for their students for a semester. And when computing resources are idle, researchers can provision high-performance computing clusters for their projects.

$41,836
The amount a department at Indiana University can save in annual hardware and energy costs by eliminating 35 servers and taking advantage of the university's private cloud services

Source: Indiana University

The VCL saves money because it lets NC State reduce the number of computer labs as well as the number of software licenses it needs to buy, Hoit says.

NC State is turning the VCL into a cloud that will house the university's server-based applications. The IT ­department uses the VCL for two central applications – one for testing and the other for disaster recovery.

For example, through server virtualization, the university's software development group can quickly provision new VMs to test new tools before going live with a deployment. And during emergencies, the VCL lets the university hold classes by offering students and faculty access to a unified learning and collaboration tool.

Moving forward, NC State hopes to use the VCL for more server-based applications. "Most central applications are on standard equipment, but we are working toward using the VCL more to get more benefit out of it," Hoit says.

Overall, university IT leaders give private clouds high marks. Cloud computing is a much hyped technology, but it offers a good return on investment and cost savings, UC Davis' Siegel says.

"The pressure is on for colleges to streamline their business processes and lower costs," he says. "The cloud is something all colleges should consider."

Think Hybrid Clouds

Universities don't have to choose between public or private clouds. They can take a hybrid approach and use both.

Indiana University is doing just that. The university takes advantage of two outside vendors that offer e-mail services to students in the public cloud. It's also collaborating with other universities to digitize library collections and offer a shared digital repository. And it's built a private cloud for internal use, says Dennis Cromwell, the university's associate vice president of enterprise infrastructure.

While some believe cloud computing is the wave of the future, Cromwell calls it "the wave of the present."

"We are already delivering services with internal clouds, collaborative clouds between institutions and commercial clouds," he says.

Elsewhere, UC Davis has built a private cloud, but because of ongoing data center space constraints, the college is investigating whether to outsource some of its data center operations to public clouds.

Peter M. Siegel, UC Davis' CIO and vice provost for information and educational technology, says the college will need a new data center within five years. It could either build a new one, partner with another college (such as the San Diego Supercomputer Center at UC San Diego), or turn to a third-party hosting service.

Siegel sees a scenario in which UC Davis could temporarily augment its private cloud when demand increases by using another campus's cloud or a third-party company. During student registration, for example, the heavy number of transactions could tax the data center. So if UC Davis needed to increase the number of servers and processing power available, the college could share another campus's data center facilities or hire a third-party cloud vendor.

"That's a perfect time to extend our cloud and increase our capabilities, and it would be transparent to the user," Siegel says.

Pepperdine's Virtual Reality

Pepperdine University uses application virtualization to offer students, faculty and staff access to apps via its own cloud.

About 40 percent of undergraduates and a large number of faculty and staff purchase Macs, and the IT department wants to make it easy for them to access the PC applications the university has standardized on. Rather than using Apple's Boot Camp or Parallels software to run Windows on their computers, Mac users can simply access apps over the cloud, says Thomas Hoover, Pepperdine's director of instructional technology support.

For a pilot study, Pepperdine purchased 250 licenses of Citrix XenApp and dedicated six servers in the data center to housing the applications and powering the computing functions. Information flows back and forth between the servers and whatever computing devices students, faculty or staff use. The goal is to offer users remote access to applications from any device.

"This levels the playing field, and it doesn't matter if they are using a Mac, Linux, Windows PC or a mobile device," Hoover says. "You can access the applications all the same."

The university is continuing the XenApp pilot this fall by allowing students to access it. "The initial feedback has been positive," Hoover says.

Pepperdine, in Malibu, Calif., uses virtualization as a pathway toward internal cloud services. Besides application virtualization, the university uses VMware to virtualize its servers. Four of the five Pepperdine schools purchase their own servers and have their own IT staff, but the central IT department houses and maintains the servers for them.

In the future, instead of individual schools buying their own servers, the central IT department may simply rent out its server infrastructure and offer virtual machines to its schools as a cloud service, Hoover says.

The university also takes advantage of desktop virtualization. The IT staff uses NComputing's desktop virtualization technology to provide 217 virtual computers on campus, and it's exploring whether to add Citrix's XenDesktop virtualization software to the mix. In the meantime, Hoover expects the university will soon benefit from XenApp.

"It's important to give students access to all the same tools. It makes learning easier," he says.

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