Macquarie Uni invests in data centre

Implementation of a new hardware and software data centre environment is under way at Macquarie University, as part of a five-year multimillion dollar deal which will deliver Web services to students, staff and partners.

Macquarie University IT services director Brian Kissell said the project includes a greenfield data centre and an campus-wide portal to serve more than 25,000 users.

It is the first Sun Microsystems Open Net Environment (One) and Sun Fire 15K enterprise-class server installation at an Australian university and includes security and load balancing.

Kissell said implementation started in June with final configuration under way now in a bid to begin testing in early October.

"The data centre will be operational on October 15 and applications will be progressively migrated into the data centre over the following 12 to 15 months in line with business requirements," he said.

"In order to position itself to effectively deliver services over the next five years, Macquarie decided to align its data centre with that of a commercial operation and structure it to operate with 24x7 capability."

The first live application within the data centre will be access to the university's research tape library. The Sun One Web environment is expected to be available from early 2003, with functionality progressively enabled.

Kissell said secure networking and audit compliance are two critical areas that will be addressed as part of the new data centre environment.

Web services to be delivered via the portal include enrolments (to replace a manual process and time delays on campus), training courses, exam results, library services, human resources information, finance systems and research data, as well as a personal calendar and e-mail account.

Users will be able to customise the portal according to their needs to speed customers service times and improve the online experience.

Kissell said the project aims to "address the problems of an ageing and disparate infrastructure that could not effectively be supported for much longer, along with security, audit and quality issues that could only be addressed effectively by adopting a holistic approach, and basically starting from the ground up".

Kissell said resourcing, funding and cultural issues had inhibited action on a number of network and security issues which had been identified earlier and for which audit deadlines had been set.

"We also needed to deliver a data centre infrastructure that was capable of operating effectively in a 24x7 Web-enabled environment and able to offer scalability both vertically and horizontally, without major changes to the infrastructure being necessary," he said.

"In addressing the security imperative, the data centre architecture had to be capable of catering for the various systems currently in place, many of which are not designed to support a three-tiered data centre environment."

Kissell said the new data centre environment is being built within the old Computing Centre at Macquarie University, and a new backup data centre is also being planned for 2003.

He said integration barriers include cultural issues relating to MIS ownership, applications management and perceived "control", or loss "there-of" of some IT.

"There is the issue of applications that were not designed to operate effectively in a secure environment. Hindsight is a wonderful thing; however, those implementing systems a number of years ago could not have foreseen the future, or expected some of these systems to remain in operation as long as they have. There are also a number of issues pertaining to establishing the new data centre environment and the impact of "change" on staff supporting the environment," he said.

Kissell said Macquarie University will also be exploring a number of e-commerce and e-business initiatives over the coming years and already has an online payment system in place for one of the courses.

He said there has been a large contingent of staff from both Sun and the university working on the project and "nearly all of IT services have, or will be involved in one way or another during implementation".

"Sun has involved a large number of national and international staff, with one of its data centre architects from the US being brought to Macquarie earlier this year to design the data centre, in consultation with university stakeholders."

He said it is difficult to identify all the individuals involved in the project, but that there were more than 100.

The university also engaged a number of contract staff to work on documentation and act as project managers.

Kisell said Sun was chosen for the project because it was able to architect a complete "greenfield" data centre environment which addressed the university's needs and to deliver it within a required timeframe.

While return on investment (ROI) is difficult to effectively quantify, he said there will be significant and tangible savings for the university through server consolidation and management that will become evident during the first 12 months.

"When we start to look at service delivery this is another question; how does one value something such as student e-mail and calendaring, communication with alumini, and customised portals that become productivity tools if used correctly? It is extremely difficult to apportion a dollar benefit," Kissell said.

"When we look at the security aspects of the new data centre, how do we place a value on the cost of protecting against a possible security breach, until after the event? All we can do in this regard is treat our investment as an insurance policy and manage the risk accordingly."

When considering this type of IT project Kissell said don't "be afraid to ask for more money than you think is available".

"If you have the right solution, the conviction to believe in it and the ability to sell the vision to key stakeholders, subsequently attaining their support, in most instances you will succeed," he added.

"Pick a solution that is "off the shelf", commercially tried and tested and has high profile reference sites. Cheaper solutions may look good on paper but don't always deliver the required outcomes and usually come with 'gotchas'.

"Remember, technology is the enabler to business, not the 'be-all-end-all', projects such as this should not be undertaken purely for the sake of the new technology. That's what research projects are for."

The deal includes the Sun Fire 15K server, the Sun StorEdge 9960 storage environment, more than 25 Sun workgroup servers, a security and load balancing environment (including firewall), and Sun One software for delivering services on demand.

The deal also includes Sun Professional Services to design architecture and aid with migration of existing applications into the Sun One environment, Sun educational services training for technical staff and software developers, as well as ongoing maintenance and support. wMacquarie University IT services director Brian Kissell said many universities including Macquarie have grown in a "somewhat ad hoc manner" dependent on funding and without a great deal of big-picture understanding of how all the pieces fit together.

While a number of universities have first class computing infrastructure, based around legacy systems, according to Kissell, these are now ageing and proving difficult to effectively integrate within today's Internet enabled environment and changing business requirements.

He said student and staff usage profiles have changed considerably, with users seeking WinWini (what i need, when i need it) due to continually evolving societal demands. There is also a major push into e-learning to support both WinWini and distance learning.

"These will only be achieved via Web-based service delivery and due to access requirements extending beyond the standard university day, need an infrastructure that is capable of operating in 24x7 mode," Kissell said.

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