Texas County Plans Shared Data Center

El Paso County co-location data center could house servers and storage for city, county and schools.

by / December 28, 2008

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. "

The county has some property, probably about a half mile to three-quarters of a mile away from downtown," Cooper said. "It's across Interstate 10, [and] it's up on higher ground."

Cooper said he expects the commissioners will approve the land, but if they don't, there are other county-owned lots to choose from.

High Hopes
The county will use this parcel of land to build a structure to house the new data center. Garcia said the ITD will relocate what equipment it can to the new facility and hopefully upgrade as time allows. This may take time, but the ultimate goal, he said, is to have this data center as a central hub for everything.

And what a hub it could be.

Cooper envisions that between virtualization technology, blade servers and the additional space, the county could accommodate much more data than it does currently. ITD staff members have toured other data center facilities, and Cooper said he's impressed with what he found. The ITD speculates that the virtualization from blade servers in the new data center might free up more physical space for cooling and additional equipment.

"We went up to Albuquerque [N.M.] and toured the Intel data centers in Rio Rancho [N.M.]," Cooper said. "We went into one room there, a 3,000-square-foot data center. It had 7,000 blade servers in there -- 7,000. And that's before you virtualize them. It's just phenomenal how much server and storage space you can get in a fairly small physical space." The data centers were similar to the size Cooper would like for El Paso, and if the county gets 7,000 blade servers, it could amount to a couple hundred servers for each entity.

But cutting-edge storage capacity isn't all the county has in store for the data center. ITD staff members also have energy efficiency on their minds in order to reduce the facility's environmental impact. The bottom line of green technology in this case, according to Cooper, is minimizing the amount of power and electricity usage. He thinks virtualization might help because if there are more virtual servers and fewer physical ones, less power and cooling will be necessary. The county is also open to using solar paneling, but isn't sure exactly how much energy or money that option would save.

Even so, this is all speculation until a designer is selected. The county released a request for quotes in summer 2008 for a data center consultant who will assist the ITD in specifying the details. According to the document, the county expects the data center to be located within a 5,000- to 6,000-square-foot building with a 4,000-square-foot computing environment. The consultant will help develop exactly how everything will work and how the sharing arrangement with other public-sector groups will be defined.

"A number of entities have expressed an interest. At this point in time, we don't have a commitment, but that, again, will be part of the assessment -- to determine what the needs are of some of the other entities," Cooper said. The design firm will meet with the interested parties, assess their needs and determine how to incorporate those needs into the data center plans. "Right now, it's the county and the city; they need a new data center. The University of Texas El Paso needs a data center, and then there's the El Paso School District, El Paso Community College and possibly the El Paso Housing Authority."

These groups are among those that have expressed interest, but Cooper said none of them has made a firm commitment.

But Cooper and his co-workers probably won't have to worry about anyone backing out. The local interest in using this data center isn't dying down anytime soon.

Working Together
Fabiola Rubio, CIO of

El Paso Community College, hopes to use the county's data center as a long-term disaster recovery solution to support the system's five campuses. She said she's waiting to hear back from the county on just how the partnering arrangement between the college and the county will work. As soon as they're ready, she'll be there.

"We were really happy to hear from them simply because the cost of building a data center is just enormous for one entity by itself," Rubio said. "We're looking forward to do the collaboration because, obviously, we want to leverage our resources. With the collaboration we have shared costs, and that is obviously going to help every entity.

"I have high hopes that we're going to be able to work out all the details with them, and it's going to be an exciting venture simply because it's state of the art," she said.

Rubio will be looking at the cost and everything the community college will get for its money, and she's not alone.

"We are committed in concept, but I haven't seen anything concrete that says, 'All right, here's the space available. If you want this amount of space, we'll need to worry about these kinds of costs,'" said Stephen Stiles, chief technology officer of the El Paso Independent School District. "With that specificity, that becomes a formal commitment on our part."

Stiles said working with the county will be much cheaper for the school district than going alone. Representatives from other interested parties are eager to see how the arrangement with the county will be delineated, but some ideas have already been floated.

"We've only talked philosophically about it, and what we're going to probably do is meter the power separately for each agency, which is an easy thing to do, so we'll each be responsible for our own power consumption," said Gerald Gordier, the city of El Paso's CIO. This will reduce operating costs, allowing the county to use more cash for building maintenance, air conditioning and other necessities. He expects the city to use the data center as its primary data site once the project is completed.

It's still unclear whether the county will lease equipment to other entities or lease everything from another vendor, but Cooper hopes the relationship between all entities will be ironed out once the data center consultation is done.

Cooper expects the implementation will be spread out among multiple solicitations, beginning with the design consultant. After the consultant helps the stakeholders fully express what they want, there will likely be more solicitations for vendors to help complete the design and build the structure.

Cooper, Stiles, Rubio and Gordier aren't strangers to the collaboration game. Their entities are among those that worked together on the Digital El Paso Project, which deployed a wireless Internet network to downtown El Paso. The primary sponsors were the city, county, housing authority and El Paso Independent School District, but other public and private groups played roles. The sponsors began work on the network in 2006, and today downtown El Paso has wireless network capability. In June 2008, the Texas Association of Governmental Information Technology Managers presented the Digital El Paso group an award for best collaborative project in Texas.

"That just goes to show you the importance and the spirit of collaboration, and that's what we're doing here in the city," Rubio said. "And I'm telling you that it's probably leading other cities and counties in collaboration."



Hilton Collins

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