University College Dublin trusts in APC’s InfraStruXure to deliver new research support facility and service

APC’s InfraStruXure® “the only solution that will work” for new dedicated high density data and IT facility at University college Dublin

For over 150 years University College Dublin [UCD] has educated and nurtured some of Ireland’s finest minds.  Today, UCD is at the forefront of leading edge research and teaching activities across a wide range of disciplines.  The University holds a strong and strategic commitment to its vision as an internationally recognised centre of academic excellence and a leader in the development of third and fourth level education in Ireland. Of the 22,000 students now enrolled at UCD, four in ten are engaged in postgraduate research or study.

From an IT perspective, the strong growth in UCD’s research activity meant a strategic commitment to offering IT facilities to cope with the level and scope of data generation.  Having identified the key needs of the research community, the decision was taken to establish the Research IT Data Centre. Fred Clarke, Head of Research IT at University College Dublin, explains the corporate thinking behind this major investment:

“There are three major reasons why the Data Centre was built. The first was to provide an IT equipment hosting service for the UCD research community; the second was to expand our existing services and the third to provide a DR facility for our existing services. We can now host services that we never could before.  For example, if in the past a researcher came to us and said that they had bought a server, we’d literally have told them to put it under their desk!  But now we have a central facility to host HPC clusters, storage and web servers, and one that also creates economies of scale. We want to offer unique facilities to those researchers already at UCD as well as those coming to the university.”

The construction of the Research IT Data Centre represented a challenge from a number of perspectives.  The facility was built from scratch in what had previously been a 54-seater PC lab in a 160 square metre space.  It is part of a new Research IT Service to support the research community and to offer ‘end to end’ IT services, including managing the facility on behalf of researchers and the broader UCD community.  Since the researchers are the clients for the new service and they define their own IT requirements, the facility needs to cater flexibly for expanding future needs:

“We’re a single point of contact for the complete suite of services to sort out all IT issues and we’ll do practically anything for the research community. The new service enables UCD to support the research community from entry level equipment up to high density computing” comments Fred Clarke.

The engineering challenge for the new Research IT Data Centre was to be able to host very high density IT equipment in a fairly small facility.  From existing equipment densities of around 2 kW per rack, the new facility initially needed to provision for loads up to six times denser.  According to Fred Clarke, “We’re squeezing 320 kW of power into about 120 square metres of usable datacentre space.”

The APC solution was the preferred option from an EU tender process, the proposed design was considered the only workable solution for the UCD data facility.  Initial confidence in APC had been established through the provision of UPS in previous UCD data facilities.  A critical factor in the decision making process was the opportunity for UCD to experience APC’s InfraStruXure® High Density, hot aisle containment solution at the company’s Solutions Centre in Galway:

“We literally could not meet the capacity specifications required of that room without APC equipment, their power and cooling systems. We were looking for a solution that didn’t need a raised floor for cooling, since there’s a concrete floor in the room.  But we also needed something that could incorporate high densities without creating the risk of hot spots. We were concerned about the idea of bringing water into a datacentre with so much electricity, but the APC system simply plugged into the water system.  Additionally, the InfraStruXure solution was pre-configured as a kit of parts which allayed any fears we had about bringing water into a datacentre”.

The speed and accuracy with which the pre-configured format could be assembled meant a short time line for the project.  Fred Clarke was impressed; “The point of the InfraStruXure solution is that it’s very quick to assemble. The component parts arrived and were then assembled by APC’s engineers very, very quickly. It is a benefit of standardisation that the APC engineers are so adept at configuring these solutions.  They showed themselves to be more than able to deal with any problems that may have arisen as the project developed”.

The finished Research IT Data Centre was opened in November 2006 and offers usable physical rack space of 28 x 42U configured in APC InfraStruXure® High Density hot aisle containment configuration.  The equipment housings – APC’s NetShelter® SX enclosures – are vendor neutral allowing a fully heterogeneous environment.  In addition to an 800kW generator, which is sufficient to power the entire building, the IT load is supported by 4x 80kW UPS and four air-conditioning units each providing up to 78kW cooling in an N+1 configuration. The data centre also utilises a free cooler for cost effective cooling during the all but the hottest days.

The InfraStruXure® architecture offered UCD advantages particular to their needs.  Rather than serving one corporate client, UCD IT Services department hosts IT equipment for a number of different research clients.  This means the ability to segregate different sections of the data centre securely is important.  In this operating environment, InfraStruXure’s metered PDUs are used to monitor the power usage of different groups. Additionally equipment can be rebooted remotely via a browser.

Most importantly, the modular design based on InfraStruXure® architecture will enable UCD to cope with future expansion requirements. This is important because Fred Clarke and his team need flexibility to deal with the dilemma of unforeseen needs as different research teams install and remove IT equipment according to project requirements.

The future expansion needs of the UCD facility will depend on the requirements of different research groups, some already at UCD; others yet to arrive.  This presents UCD with the dilemma of unknown future needs.  Yet the flexibility inherent in the InfraStruXure® architecture will enable UCD to balance the competing needs of space, power and cooling:

“Each group plans and buys their own IT equipment based on the requirements of their research.  If during the coming year people buy very dense equipment we may need to install more power and cooling equipment. On the other hand, if they buy less dense equipment then we have the capability of deploying more IT equipment racks.  It gives us the ability to say that this is where we’re at now and in a year’s time we need more cooling, more power or more space.  APC’s InfraStruXure really is that flexible”.

The value of InfraStruXure® in delivering a resilient and reliable IT system is judged in terms of its ability to sustain its contribution to the productive use of peoples’ time and reduce the risk of downtime and the loss of valuable academic time.  In a paradoxical sense, the capability of the Research IT Data Centre to make activities easier and more accessible for the UCD research community has created a greater risk attached to downtime.

Fred Clarke says “A research group is a people intensive business and the university’s infrastructure  is dedicated to ensuring the most productive use of peoples’ time.  There are particularly critical times when the loss of an IT service can make a huge impact, such as interrupting the submission of a grant proposal.  Whereas start of term and springtime were the busiest period for IT Services now it’s busy all the year round”.

The changing behaviour derived from the new Research IT Data Centre represents also the opportunity for increased collaboration between different research groups within UCD and to seed new IT-based opportunities for the University, such as a shared interdisciplinary collaboration visualisation CAVE facility with the UCD School of Computer Science and Infomatics.

Fred Clarke sees APC as very much part of the unfolding evolution of the data facility, particularly as APC continues to develop their range of solutions.  “APC are constantly fine tuning their products, and as we expand this facility we will be able to make use of some of the new products such as the In-Row RP, a full-rack cooling unit which sits next to the IT load.  You can always look at the website and see something new that you would have liked for this project”.

The establishment of the Research IT Data Centre represents the major strategic commitment of UCD to cementing Ireland’s position in the international research landscape.  It is a facility of exponential value to a research community not just in terms of its technical capabilities but in terms also of assisting the development of a research culture based on innovation and collaboration.

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