El Paso County, Texas, Shared Data Center Texas County Plans Shared Data Center/For One and All Illustration by Tom McKeith

In state and local government, collaboration is in -- just ask the public-sector movers and shakers in Texas' westernmost county, El Paso. City and county government, school districts, community colleges and others -- groups that make life a bit easier for the citizens they serve -- have a history of working together to deploy projects that otherwise would be difficult to implement. Their latest planned endeavor is a county-run data center that stakeholders hope will provide storage and backup capabilities for several entities.

"We're considering it as a co-location [facility] in the sense that we would not be managing other people's servers; we would just be providing the space, power and infrastructure," said Peter Cooper, El Paso County's chief technology officer. "We would probably each have separate fiber connections."

Cooper works for the county's Information Technology Department (ITD), the group spearheading the planning. Like most county technology departments, the ITD supports other work units with their technology needs, but thanks to this new data center project, the staff members have another tall order. They've been working hard to prepare for it, and they're taking special care to get the project right.

In April 2008, some of Cooper's co-workers attended AFCOM's annual Data Center World Conference in Las Vegas. AFCOM was founded in 1980, when the acronym stood for the Association for Computer Operations Management. The association has evolved into a resource for data center professionals, with annual conferences like the one El Paso's ITD personnel attended. Their goal was to talk to designers and vendors to find out what makes a good data center tick. They came back with some intriguing ideas.

"The interesting thing, both from vendors we've talked to and talking to design people at this data center design conference, is that with blade servers and virtualization, we're actually going to be able to have a relatively small space compared to what we're using now," Cooper said. "This would be our primary data center. We would put in new equipment, blade servers and virtualize as much as we can."

The county's current data center and computer room fall short of what's needed. Cooper said El Paso has already allocated nearly $6 million for the new facility as part of a bond issue.

"We have outgrown our space and cooling," he said. El Paso County had 736,000 residents in 2006, according to a U.S. Census Bureau estimate. "We have two data centers. You can't even call them data centers. We have two computer rooms in the county courthouse. One's up on the 13th floor and one's down in the basement, and we've had flooding in both places."

Cooper recalled heavy rainstorms in 2006 that threatened the data centers because of roof leakage. A water-related disaster is always a concern since the El Paso County Courthouse is on lower ground near the Rio Grande. The county repaired the roof in time to save the equipment, but weather isn't the only threat that could jeopardize the equipment.

"We've also seen water in our lower-level room when a main burst inside the building and water spilled out, and it got dangerously close to shutting us down because it was very close to where we have our equipment," said David Garcia, the county's business applications project administrator. "That was another lesson learned: You don't want to have your data center too close to water."

The facilities department came to the rescue with wet vacuums to siphon water until the spill could be controlled. But as Garcia said, the ITD doesn't want to take any more chances with these types of situations. They've scoped out a new location for the incoming data center away from El Paso's downtown area. Once the designer assesses and deems the land sufficient, the ITD will go to the Board of County Commissioners for approval. "

Hilton Collins, Staff Writer Hilton Collins  | 

Hilton Collins is a former staff writer for Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines.