OIT, Facilities Department Developing Plans to Firm Up Networking Access

Brandon T. Bisceglia

In August 2011, Tropical Storm Irene knocked out power to UNH’s campus for days. In October, an unprecedented snowstorm knocked the university’s Internet services out for the entire weekend. Since then, the Office of Information Technology and the Facilities Department have both been developing plans to shore up the university’s access to online services.

According to Director of Networking/Systems Operations Greg Bartholomew, UNH learned a valuable lesson from the one-two punch of 2011’s storms. “Just because you haven’t had an outage for ten years doesn’t mean you won’t have one,” he says.

Bartholomew and Associate Vice President of OIT Vincent P. Mangiacapra are looking at a number of different solutions in case of another outage. The best short-term solution, Mangiacapra says, is to put generator hookups into Echlin and Maxcy halls, the two main sources for the university’s data networks.

Director of Facilities Louis Annino agrees. Right now, he says, the only extra source of power for the department is a type of battery-based backup called an Uninterruptible Power Supply, or UPS. The primary purpose of a UPS, says Annino, is to make sure that a data center has “clean power” – that is, to protect the system from voltage dips.

“Voltage dips happen all the time,” he says. “You see it when the lights in a room dim for a second. It could just be a squirrel or a bird on the power lines, or a tree that touches them. If you filter your power through a UPS, though, you won’t see those dips.”

The other function of a UPS is to generate power for enough time to allow a controlled shutdown of a data system if there is an extended loss of outside power. But the UPS can only do this on a scale of minutes – not the hours that an emergency generator can provide.

An emergency generator hookup installed on the exterior of Echlin Hall would give the OIT the ability to rent a generator and have it running within a few hours of an outage, says Annino. However, it would not do much for anyone who had lost power in a different building.

Another plan OIT hopes to implement over the coming months involves moving the web servers and other critical servers to a “safe harbor” in Springfield, Mass. Mangiacapra says the department would probably make the move in incremental steps.

“The first step would be to really plan out how network connectivity will happen in that location,” he says. “Once that’s straightened out, we will move our web server there. That will ensure that everyone will still be able to access newhaven.edu as normal from outside the university even if there’s a problem here.”

Next, he says, OIT would develop a plan to move a secondary Microsoft Exchange server to the site that will mirror the current on-campus server. “If we do have an issue here it will fail-over to that location for (staff) email,” he says.

After that, OIT would consider doing the same for Blackboard. Mangiacapra is not sure whether the move could include Tegrity, the multimedia platform, because it takes up so much storage space.

Bartholomew says that the maintenance costs after the move would likely only include a $400 monthly charge for electricity. Other costs would be negligible because the Massachusetts site is already used by the Connecticut Education Network, a consortium to which UNH currently belongs. “We’re finalizing the hardware costs now for how much storage we would need to replicate what we have here,” he says.

Bartholomew thinks that the move could begin as early as May, after the equipment has been bought and tested. The process would continue through the summer. Mangiacapra says that the plan has already been informally finalized, but that he still needs to bring to it to President Steven H. Kaplan and the other administrative officers for their final approval.  “I don’t think there will be any opposition to it, because it’s not very costly,” he adds.

The move, says Mangiacapra, is becoming especially important because of the growth of online classes  as part of UNH’s course offerings. “Someone in another state, another country, another continent is maybe not going to know that we had a snowstorm,” he says.

The Facilities Department and OIT have also begun early discussions for a long-term project that would move the data centers to a centralized location on the main campus. It would be a costly and complicated move. But Annino says that it fits with a larger goal that he has of integrating the campus electrical grid.

The cut-off of power that Echlin experienced in October was a reflection of how UNH has been built up. It began with only two main buildings: Maxcy Hall and the Gate House. As each new building was erected, it was connected to outside power by a single, separate line. “The buildings are by and large fed directly from the street,” with few exceptions, says Annino.

In the case of the October snowstorm, the separation of these lines meant that even though the rest of UNH’s main campus still had power, Echlin remained in the dark. And as long as Echlin remained dark, the rest of the campus had no connectivity to online services.

Annino says he would like to include a dedicated data center in the design of a future building. He would also like to get an electrical substation for the campus and re-feed electricity across the campus, including the data systems, through that. A substation, he says, would take in power from two outside feeds. “That way,” he says, “if you lose the feed from Campbell Avenue, the alternative feed could handle the load.”

Annino acknowledges that the large scale and cost of these projects means that they probably will take a number of years to implement. However, he says, they are becoming more and more important as UNH expands. “This is a small but growing campus, and now we’re pushing medium-sized,” he adds.