University of Calgary sets up facility to create data centre tools

A Canadian researcher wants to turn the concept of utility computing on its ear by making IT departments, rather than vendors, the providers of compute resources on demand.

The University of Calgary has signed up HP Canada as a major sponsor in the project, which will cost about $6 million. It will mean the creation of a new facility at the postsecondary institution that will also be devoted to provide simulation and modelling services. It is also intended to become a showcase of sorts where industry players could pilot and demonstrate advanced computing technology.

Harold Esche, the University of Calgary’s CIO, said the facility will use horizontally scalable Linux-based systems set up in grid computing environments that will be flexibly reconfigured according to departmental requests. Right now those systems are primarily devoted to high-performance computing (HPC) work conducted by physics and other scientific research.

“We’re taking what we’ve been doing with respect to HPC and grid-related areas and bringing it in conjunction with enterprise computing, the bread-and-butter computing for the teaching and learning areas,” he said. “Often we see those as very separate.”

Much like utility computing, where vendors offer to increase compute cycles as their customers need it, Esche said the university’s data centre will create the capacity necessary to handle peak periods in the enterprise side of its business. The centre is also being designed to reduce the time it would take to put in a new IT service, which normally requires provisioning new hardware. Esche hopes to create tools that will ease the management and operation of similar environments in corporate enterprises.

“The software isn’t in place for people to have four CPUs running this afternoon and two tonight, to scale up and down magically. It’s just not solid enough,” he said.

HP vice-president of enterprise, marketing and alliances Lynn Anderson said the vendor is putting $3.38-million towards the project because it aligns well with the research underway in its own labs.

“You can build something out there, but you can’t throw people at it to be able to manage that load,” she said. “If somebody drops a very large job on the utility and then you have service degradation, how do you parse jobs out?”

Esche said the University of Calgary will be starting with simple areas, such as its directory service, for example, before provisioning to the other part of its enterprise operation.

“We’re not putting ERP on the system on the first day,” he said. “The systems managers will have to make the call on when they’re comfortable running the full enterprise on that model.” 

Esche’s research is tackling a problem HP hears about regularly, Anderson said.

“Customers are looking for how they can source out labour arbitrage to get reductions in costs. We don’t believe that’s a sustaining game,” she said. “Removing people from the management is the ultimate way you’re going to get to cheap, available computing power.”

HP also funded two other Alberta-based research projects, one based on nanosensors for medical and environmental applications and another focused on virtual videoconferencing.

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