Data Center relocating to better protect PSU’s critical computers

Grabbing a tarp to shield thousands of dollars of computer equipment from a leaky, almost hundred-year-old roof may not seem like it should be on Jim Stapleton’s list of things to do at work. Yet when the rains are steady and heavy, Stapleton, a network engineer for the Computing and Network Services, crawls up into the false ceiling to keep the hundreds of servers in his charge safe and dry.

After years of planning, Portland State’s Data Center is being relocated from Shattuck Hall Annex to the Fourth Avenue Building in a move that is designed to fulfill the university’s needs for the next 20 years. Equipment will be greatly improved as will be the ability to overcome power losses like the one that occurred Friday afternoon, grinding to a halt all functions of the system’s 40,000 e-mail accounts, the “Banner” application that runs Banweb and WebCT.

“We’re basically making a two-fold jump in all the resources across the board,” said Mark Gregory, executive director of Information and Technology. “A big reason to need to move is that we’re using more and more power, electricity and heat. Computers burn more power and run hotter. We simply needed a more robust facility.”

With a new 3 million watt generator, the new facility could keep on running as long as there was diesel fuel flowing. The generator could even keep the whole building going in a power loss situation. As a secondary backup, new battery packs double the capacity to function without outside power.

In designing and engineering the new space, lessons learned over the 30 years in the Shattuck space were taken into account. Initially a data center for U.S. West, many worry that the building’s earthquake readiness is currently a liability for PSU, making seismic improvements increasingly important in Shattuck. Additionally, moving hardware will no longer be a challenge with dedicated rooms large enough to comfortably break down boxes. The life expectancy for most equipment is less than three years.

The new facility is located through a non-descript white door that anyone might pass by and think a boiler room was on the other side. “It has to be that way. But once you go inside it’s really a showpiece place,” Gregory said. A glass-walled viewing area allows visitors to get close enough to the action with out risking possible damage to sensitive equipment. Areas are sectioned off and admittance is restricted to those who work in the area. A separate kitchen area boasts a comfy couch for those late nights that will inevitably be spent solving technical problems.

Due to the intensive planning involved in moving each server, only one-third have been moved at this time. “When we get told to move a server, it can take 6-10 people up to a week to figure out all the pieces involved,” said Sue Riegsecker, director of security. Finding the right time to move the equipment can be a challenge, determining when the impact will be the least. Usually this means packing up a van in the middle of the night, when the fewest people are online.

The most critical servers remain in Shattuck Hall Annex, waiting for the right moment to get ferried to their new home.