The United Kingdom’s sixth largest university is upgrading its main data centre using the latest infrastructure equipment and management software. Schneider Electric said it is supplying the equipment to maximise the availability, reliability and efficiency of IT services.
Sheffield Hallam University has undertaken work to deploy a state-of-the art highly virtualised data centre as part of a £30m building development at Charles Street in central Sheffield. The university is working with data centre specialist Advanced Power Technology (APT), an Elite Partner to Schneider Electric.
APT’s installation is based on Schneider Electric InfraStruxure integrated data centre physical infrastructure solution for power, cooling and racking. The new facility will be managed using StruxureWare Data Centre Infrastructure Management (DCIM) software to maximise the efficiency of data centre operations.
Wide range of disciplines
With a pedigree dating back to the early 19th Century, Sheffield Hallam has more than 31,000 students, around 20% of whom are post graduates, and over 4,500 staff. One of the UK’s largest providers of tuition for health and social care career paths, and teacher training, it offers around 700 courses across a wide range of disciplines including Business and administrative studies, Biological sciences, and Engineering & Technology.
The university has a range of research centres and institutes as well as specialised research groups. Research grants and contracts provide an important source of income to support work at Sheffield Hallam; in May 2013 the university was awarded £6.9m from the HEFCE Catalyst Fund to create the National Centre of Excellence for Food Engineering, to be fully operational by 2017.
Sheffield Hallam University is situated on two campuses comprising 12 major buildings in the centre of the city of Sheffield. Its IT department operates two data centres, running as an active-active pair. Each location provides primary IT services as well as offering failover support to the other. “Services provided by the IT department are typical of those required by any university,” said Robin Jeeps, project manager for Sheffield Hallam. “We host the website, the intranets and common applications such as Exchange, Outlook and Office, in addition to the student management systems, virtual learning environments, library systems and CRM systems.”
In terms of hardware, the university has adopted a virtualisation policy, running between 800 and 900 virtual machines on about 70 blade servers distributed across both data centres. It also has a small high-performance Beowulf compute cluster to support research projects but for the most part the main concerns for the IT department are high availability, reliability and cost. As one of the existing data centres was in a building whose lease was due to expire, the IT department took the opportunity presented to move the IT facility into the Charles Street development and upgrade its capabilities to improve efficiency and availability.
Following a contract tender, APT was selected to provide and install the cooling and power infrastructure equipment and the DCIM software necessary to manage it efficiently. Thanks to virtualisation, the number of physical servers the university needed to maintain services had dropped from 60 devices in the older data centre to 15 in the new Charles Street facility. “We can now run on one chassis what we would have run in three racks before,” said Robin Jeeps. “That makes a big difference.” Located at the new Charles Street data centre, the IT equipment racks are installed within two APC by Schneider Electric InfraStruxure with hot aisle containment systems (HACS) to ensure an efficient and effective cooling supply. Two 300kW free-cooling units supply chilled water to the HACS and within the equipment racks, APC InRow cooling units maintain optimum operating temperatures.
The HACS segregates the cool air supply from the hot exhaust air, preventing both streams from mixing and enabling more precise control of the cooling according to the IT load’s requirement. At the same time, locating the InRow cooling units next to the servers and storage equipment also reduces the cooling energy requirement by eliminating the need to move large volumes of air in a suspended floor space.
Data centre efficiency
Crucial to maintaining efficient operation is the adoption of StruxureWare software. This project marks the first time that Sheffield Hallam has had an integrated management system for monitoring all aspects of its data centres’ infrastructure, according to Jeeps. “We had a variety of software packages in place before,” he said. “But StruxureWare provides us with a much more integrated solution. As long as something has an IP address, we can see it in [software] and monitor how it is working. Previously we had to go through physical switches and hard-wired cables to monitor a particular piece of equipment.”
Jeeps suggested that the homogenous integrated management environment proposed by APT was crucial to its winning the contract to supply the data centre infrastructure. “We kept the IT side of the contract separate from the overall development of the building,” he said. “When we studied APT’s tender we liked the clear design they presented and the consistent management of our infrastructure that it made possible.”
The new management capabilities will allow Sheffield Hallam the flexibility to monitor its infrastructure for maximum efficiency and to manage how it makes its services available to students and researchers. Jeeps claims that this will allow the university to tender for research contracts that hitherto it had not been able to do.
“We don’t currently provide cost charging or resource charging of IT services to our departments and I doubt that we ever will,” he commented. “I don’t think that’s the best way for a university to operate. But if we were undertaking a research project, for example, which work on fixed funding and had to itemise how much the computing support would cost, we have the tools to do that now. We never had anything like that before.”
Another potential benefit offered by the software is the benchmarking of the overall system efficiency, especially with regard to how well the cooling infrastructure operates as a percentage of the overall power budget of the data centre. Power usage effectiveness (PUE) ratings are increasingly being used to compare one data centre’s efficiency with its peers.
“It’s a bit of a ‘chicken and egg’ situation,” quipped Jeeps. “Until we saw the capabilities of the software we didn’t know some of the monitoring, reporting and capacity planning that was now possible. Previously, we could only have done some rough calculations using a tool like Excel but the capabilities we have now will spur us on further to think about all sorts of things we can do.”
“Working with Advanced Power Technology and Schneider Electric has been an efficient and productive partnership from start to finish,” said Jeeps. “The services they provided have been professional, thorough and at times very patient in terms of solving some of the challenges we’ve had to correct throughout the deployment stages. They remained focused on delivering an intricate solution that would meet our expectations and point of view as a customer, at all times.”
John Thompson from APT explained: “When we build a data centre for one of our clients we look on the relationship as a partnership. It is very important for us to understand the long-term requirements so that we can design for future possibilities to remain available and flexible in our response, throughout the life of the facility. This is one of the reasons we chose to deploy a complete Schneider Electric ‘engineered as a system’ data centre solution for the Charles Street room. To begin we built a virtual data centre within the StruxureWare software suite, so that the stakeholders could have a ‘3D walk round’ and provide feedback on the solution they were getting prior to delivery. Whilst this resulted in quite a few design revisions it helped to ensure that APT delivered exactly what was expected.”