Behind the veil

Rows of computer servers fill a 6,000-square-foot room Wednesday in the University of Wyoming Information Technology Center.

THADDEUS MAST/Boomerang staff

Thaddeus Mast

Behind a steel door in the University of Wyoming’s Information Technology Center lies the brains of campus, made of dozens of black cabinets, hundreds of lights and fiber optics cable linking it all together.

Vice President for IT Robert Aylward put his finger on a scanner and held his ID card to a security device, unlocking the door with a solid clunk. Inside the chilled, drafty room with a high-pitched hum lies millions of dollars of computer servers, storage and supercomputers that, if shut down, could bring the university to a standstill.

More than a dozen rows — each about 40 feet long — of black cabinets 6 feet tall run hundreds of university applications all day, every day, even down to basic Internet access.

“Our financial systems are in here, our student information systems are in here,” Aylward said. “We have a program here called DegreeWorks so that if a student wants to see where they are in respect to graduation requirements, they can go in and check that out.”

Millions of dollars of equipment isn’t there forever — once it’s purchased, it needs maintenance and, eventually, replacement.

“IT is a perishable good,” Aylward said. “It has a shelf life, and that shelf life is 3-7 years, depending on the equipment. If we did this correctly, we need about $4.2 million-$4.5 million a year to replace everything we need in that life cycle.”

Currently, IT is given about $3.5 million for everything it does, not including salaries.

“In that $3.5 million, almost $1 million goes to pay two companies for software only,” Aylward said. “So now, I’m down to $2.5 million.”

Current Legislature Joint Appropriations Committee recommendations do not fund any requested IT department requests, meaning UW will have to find money internally.

UW also needs matching funds of $12 million to implement a new fiscal system.

While asking the colleges to reduce costs, administration might also take money from several reserve accounts on campus to best fund IT and other maintenance costs, which totals millions of dollars.

“(Matching funds of) $12 million gathered over 2-3 years from the deans is too big of an ask,” said Bill Mai, vice president of administration, to the UW Board of Trustees. “When we take into account the needs for IT, we also need to consider using some of the reserves.”

And the university’s effort to upgrade the fiscal system will only increase the already strained department’s funding. While the legislative Joint Appropriations Committee suggestion of $10 million one-time costs will cover installation and some salaries, the maintenance of the system will fall on the IT department in the coming years.

Even today’s data is being stored on older machines — several devices utilize tapes as opposed to more modern solid state drives. The department can take some risks on certain equipment — literally running it until it breaks, but some need constant updates, like the system’s main router, which costs $125,000.

“What happens, typically, the vendor stops supporting it,” Aylward said. “That means, if anything goes wrong with the university’s main communications system, you can call (the company) up, and they’ll say, ‘Sorry, we stopped supporting that a while ago. You should have bought the new equipment.’”

While the replacement of computer equipment covers most of IT’s department budget, upgrades for the supporting systems is just as important, Data Center Manager Jerome Lindsey explained.

“The more (equipment) they bring in here, the more infrastructure you need to support it,” he said. “More equipment draws more electricity which draws more heat in the room. So, then you need to have a way to get the heat out. So, what we did was upgrade the electrical so we could put more equipment which would add more heat, so we need a better way to get that heat out.”

And each system necessary for the “UW brain” needs a backup.

“The whole objective is not to have services down at all for any amount of time,” he said.

Before the use of integrated computers was as necessary as they are today, a short drop in Internet time or email was inconvenient but not debilitating. Now, a lack of Internet could even lead to canceled classes.

And annoyance isn’t even the main worry. If, for example, the water cooling systems go out, IT personnel have about 20 minutes to shut every piece of equipment down before they start burning themselves up through their massive heat outputs.

“If you put your finger on a 100 watt light bulb, you could burn yourself,” he said. “Now, imagine the heat output of 250 megawatts used to power this equipment.”

Thus, every important system has a redundant backup. Both a power generator and a water cooling unit sit outside the building, ready to fill in for any power cuts or Physical Plant problems. A bank of 7-foot-tall batteries is always ready to provide 20 minutes of backup power, although the building’s generator kicks in within seconds of detecting a power outage.

All of these systems are mostly in the background of what most students, faculty and staff use IT for — simple computer fixes. The 120 staff members mostly work on the ground, taking a student’s laptop or running to a computer lab to fix a computer on the fritz.

They also install programs needed by professors on a massive scale, sending new applications to hundreds of computers at a time.

“We’re a customer service department,” he said. “We serve the students, faculty and staff on campus.”

(4) comments

Formula for Success

Another poorly written article. Typical blathering exposition- no inverted pyramid of information. No respect for the reader, who by paragraph ____ still has no idea what kind of help is needed. Can we help with a community bake sale? Oh, maybe they're hiring? No...that's not mentioned. Golly! What kind of help does our second-class UW need now?

Joshua

If you weren't aware of what kind of help was needed, then you either misread the article, or didn't understand it. The writer clearly stated that one of the most integral services at UW is the IT department. That IT department is underfunded. They need money. Our legislature just approved massive expenditures for D1 sports (mostly football) so that the University could pay for athletes to be able to "receive nutrition." So we are essentially giving foodstamps to athletes that can't afford food rather than nurturing brilliant minds, or taking care of the foundational infrastructure of our University. Priorities and decisions are obviously not our strong suit.

Formula for Success

Thank you for being clear. Wish you had written the article!

JollyRoger

Anyone working in IT will instantly recognize this as a "Tale as Old as Time". IT staff and infrastructure are currently an forever described
with fun terms like "overhead" and "loss leader". That is, until someone can't open their email client, they delete an important document and need a backup which will probably be from six years ago and is called "...March 2010 or something like that...", or some notorious piece of malware, that the security staff (if one even exists) has been warning about for months or years, has finally made it's way onto an "important" system and encrypted a drive.
IT equipment and often staff are generally relegated to the basement, the back room and/or a vacant office until that office is needed by more "important" people or processes. That is (unfortunately) also, in general, how it is approached when it comes time to open up the proverbial wallet. IT is ALWAYS expected to do more with less. Cut costs. Be more efficient. Diversify skill-sets (sorry no funds for training), etc.
In this day and age almost everything that is done in education, business and government is done because there is Info Tech in place to get it done. Oddly, it is almost always the last to get funded, the first to get plundered and the first to be blamed when the "real work" can't get done. This is usually because the "geeks" can't or don't know how to make management care about things like deduplication ratios, bandwidth throughput, return time/point objectives, compression, network segmentation or access control lists. They can, in this case, however understand things like, I assume, football victories or prospective student numbers.
In short, they understand money. Where it is made and where it is lost. The onus is on us as IT leaders to find a way to make this correlation clear, concise and important to those that don't know or care about the difference between a botnet and a subnet, BUT it is also necessary for management to have or try to have a cursory understanding of what is being said and quit treating IT like the town mule.
Until both sides can do that we will always be "doing so much with so little for so long that we will be qualified to do anything with nothing". Probably not the best way to run things.

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