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Next-Gen Data Center Upgrade Helps Durham, N.C., Lay Smart City Foundation

Sparked by the new data center, the county’s next-gen future also includes enhanced library services and a new security operations center.

by Theo Douglas / November 29, 2016

Durham County, N.C., one of only six local governments recognized this year with Public Technology Institute’s Tech Savvy award, continues to embrace new technology — like its new next-generation data center, announced Nov. 29.

What makes this new data center special is its use of Cisco's Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI) fabric for network management — a move that will position Durham to capitalize on its still largely unused 40GB dark fiber ring downtown and ultimately lay the foundation for smart city services. The fiber ring will connect previously separate county offices and departments like its library on one network, and make more data available to residents.

County officials said adopting this infrastructure, which first became available to ship about two years ago, will free staffers from long hours of network management — communicating laboriously with one piece of hardware after another. They'll now be increasingly available to create applications and work on other projects improving access for Durham’s more than 280,000 residents.

The new data center should be complete when services are fully migrated to ACI, which is expected to occur around June 1, roughly a month ahead of schedule.

But this new infrastructure is already transforming Durham’s network from a traditional model in which staffers built policies and securities that spelled out how each piece of hardware communicated, to one centered on software-defined networking control.

Seth M. Price, senior network engineer and architect for Durham County, said he's able to simply build configurations and submit them, and the network controller pushes them out to individual devices.

The change, he said, is somewhat revolutionary.

“We’re one of the very first [agencies] doing what we’re doing, we’re one of the very first in the world as far as how far we’re going with Cisco ACI,” Price said, characterizing the cost as comparable to merely updating the existing model. “This is going to give us the ability to do, we don’t know what yet, but we’re going to spend more time on innovating and coming up with ideas rather than spending more time in production."

The new system’s number of platform racks has been roughly halved, and its superior performance has cut electricity, heating and cooling costs by about one-third.

“This aligns with the county’s goal for accountable, efficient and visionary government: streamlining our operations, saving energy and improving security for the services we provide residents and our business departments," said Durham County CIO Greg Marrow in a statement, also noting that the agency will serve as a “public-sector model for a leading-edge Software Defined Network and an application centric data center.”

One key advantage of the next-gen data center? Efficiency.

Automating previously time-consuming daily tasks will enable Durham County’s new data center to support a “DevOps” environment — and reverse staff’s workload, reducing network and data center maintenance to only around 20 percent of their days.

“We’re government. We don’t communicate well internally," said Durham County Network Services Manager Joel Bonestell. "That’s what I’m most excited about, is the efficiency it’s going to create."

And that efficiency extends to citizen-facing services as well. One app that county officials have already created but will expand in the future allows residents to photograph important documents with their cell phones and send them to the county — everything from marriage licenses to utility bills.

Documents are temporarily siloed for a security check, then made available when they clear. Plans are to expand the app to handle PDFs, Word documents and Excel spreadsheets.

Sparked by the new data center, the agency’s next-gen future will also include enhanced services at the Durham County Library, which will close early next year for a roughly two-year renovation, and a renovated Durham County Judicial Building that, after a two-year, $34 million renovation, will serve as a county administration building and house Durham’s new Security Operations Center (SOC).

Though Durham currently has more than 500 security cameras countywide, there’s currently no central location to view their footage, so officials sometimes drive out to pull video segments using thumb drives — but the new SOC will change that, Price said.

“That’s where that 40GB worth of bandwidth in our downtown [will go]," he added. "We’ll use up a lot of that just with our data feed.”

Beyond dark fiber, the future could also bring Durham an entirely new intelligent video surveillance system similar to what’s in place in New York City, which Price said is about two years out.

He also said that although transitioning to this Cisco infrastructure meant adapting to different concepts and terminology, it's something they'd have to deal with at some point whether they like it or not.

"This is the future, and this is where you’re going to have to go at some point,” Price said, noting that if other agencies stick with it, “I guarantee at some point the light is going to come on and you’re going to say 'This is why we’re doing it.’”

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