January 16, 2012 By Wayne Hanson
In February, the city and county of El Paso, Texas, will move over to a new HP Performance Optimized Data Center (POD) — a “data center in a box,” as the company terms it — to further integrate the city’s and county’s IT resources.
Consequently is the city and county engaged in a cloud, a consolidation or a shared services initiative? Chief Technology Officer Peter Cooper said “all of the above.” Cooper — who has management authority for both city and county IT departments that are directed by Miguel Gamino and David Garcia, respectively — said the project went live Dec. 16. Some technical details and tuning are being completed, and the final cutover is slated for next month.
Cooper said that the city computer room (in the basement of City Hall) and the county computer room (in the courthouse basement) were subject to flooding, power, space and air conditioning problems. Then a hard freeze broke the pipes in City Hall and water running into the machine room brought down some emergency services.
In addition to computer room problems, Cooper said that servers, storage units and network gear for both city and county were at end of life and needed a refresh. “We started designing and assessing what the needs were,” said Cooper, “how big and how much storage, how many servers and how they should be migrated into this. Rather than doing them piecemeal, we decided to bring in new HP blade servers, HP EVA storage units and new Cisco Nexus core switches for both city and county.”
Transitioning from stacked servers and multiple SAN storage units to monolithic storage and a fully virtualized environment took a lot of analysis and work to calculate what was needed. IT staff then worked with HP on implementing and migrating the applications from physical servers to virtual servers. “There was just a lot of technical work involved,” said Cooper, “from a lot of dedicated people.” Cooperative and open-minded people who can work together are essential to a project of this nature, he said. When two local governments work together, the costs and benefits must be balanced and must be acceptable to each governing body.
During the refresh, Cooper said, it made sense to co-locate the city and county equipment. One data center is now in the county building in El Paso, and the POD is in the other. “Both of them have totally new equipment,” said Cooper. “It's basically a private cloud, virtualized servers and storage, and redundant core switches. By working cooperatively, the city and county each got a redundant data center. In other words, our equipment is in their data center and their equipment is in our data center.”
While the initiative is still evolving and integration continues, Cooper has project teams — a server team, a network team, microwave team and special projects are some of them — made up of both city and county staff. “The help desk is becoming one facility, one shop,” he said, “and we're working on acquiring space in a new facility so they can be totally integrated and co-located.”
Cooper says he thinks El Paso is the first local government in the country to employ the POD, and he is enthusiastic about its potential. “A lot of people are still thinking of the old concept of a large space and large equipment, but moving to the blade servers and large SAN storage units decreases the footprint [necessary] to support these applications,” he explained.
The POD was built on the dimensions of a standard shipping container. It’s 40 feet long, 10 feet wide, and 8 feet tall. “And you can put up to 22 racks in it that are taller than normal — they're 50 units high as opposed to 42 units,” Cooper said. “The PODs have redundant power supplies, and fans, and are very efficient because they are relatively small and the air is moved through very quickly. You can get a lot more equipment in that small space.”
El Paso’s POD is outside in a fenced area, and Cooper says it is designed to handle heat and the elements. Adjacent to the POD are two other containers of similar size. The power unit houses a flywheel and a diesel generator, and the other unit contains chillers and the cooling apparatus.
The POD houses all the major city and county applications. Several other entities — including a small municipal government, a local state office and a university — are interested in El Paso’s cloud and may participate in some manner, said Cooper.
Cooper said location may play a part in El Paso’s success at collaboration. “We're kind of in the middle of nowhere,” he said. “In West Texas we're not really part of Texas and we're not quite in New Mexico; we're pretty much on our own. We don’t have a lot of money, we don’t have a lot of resources, but we have built cooperation with school districts, the university, community college and other agencies. We're somewhat isolated and we have to work together.”
This Digital Communities white paper highlights discussions with IT officials in four counties that have adopted shared services models. Our aim was to learn about the obstacles these governments have faced when it comes to shared services and what it takes to overcome those roadblocks. We also spoke with several members of the IT industry who have thought long and hard about these issues. The paper offers some best practices for shared government-to-government services, but also points out challenges that government and industry still must overcome before this model gains widespread adoption.