These past several months have been exciting for the O’Reilly School of Technology. Our course offerings have expanded, the OST student body has increased, we’ve added new staff, and we officially outgrew our datacenter. As the lead system administrator for OST, I’m part of the team charged with addressing the challenges of datacenter expansion. Our plan has been to make this big move without our students ever noticing, so I hope this is the first you’re hearing about it.
Initially we considered expanding within our original server location in Champaign, Illinois, but the costs for additional cooling and electrical capacity were prohibitive, compelling us to explore other options. We came up with three possible solutions to our dilemma: building a whole new datacenter at a new location, outsourcing all of our services to a cloud provider, or renting rack space in an existing datacenter.
Since we’re already pretty good at running our own datacenter, building at a new site was the first option we considered. But as we started to add up the costs for this type of project, we realized pretty quickly that since we require only 3 racks of equipment, the economies of scale didn’t justify the expense. The costs of installing fully redundant cooling, internet, and power sources outweighed the benefits of building our own site from scratch. Additionally, managing this type of project would require a lot of staff time, which would detract from the time we normally spend developing learning solutions for our students.
With the creation of a brand new datacenter off the table, the prospect of moving services to a cloud provider such as Amazon Web Services or Rackspace looked to be the more realistic and cost-effective route, but many factors prevented us from taking it. Cloud services turned out to be more expensive than we first thought. We learned that most providers’ fees are based upon the amount of RAM used. Around the 250GB/ram mark, cloud computing becomes more expensive than traditional options. With our original system, we employed virtualization and memory overcommitment technologies and so we were able to allocate more RAM capacity for students than we actually had on site. If we were to switch to a cloud provider, that efficiency would have been lost and transformed into an added expense. In addition, we have been using specialized storage technology that’s not available currently from any cloud provider. We also came to discover that most cloud providers do not have standards or processes for data archival that would meet our needs.
The last option we looked at, and the one we ultimately chose, was to move our equipment to an existing datacenter (Prominic.net Inc) and rent colocation space there. This allowed us to keep full control of our hosted learning environment, while shifting the burden of managing the physical site and infrastructure to a company with experience and a track record of reliability in that industry. Selecting this method allowed us to expand our capacity with minimal disruption to services, while keeping expenses in check. This transition was a real challenge, and I’m proud of our success in meeting it.
Throughout this process, we were inundated with the buzz about the cloud, and it got me thinking about our work and the path we’ve taken to get here-we were actually working in the cloud services business before the term ever existed. We’ve provided hosted learning services for over 10 years, where students access files and applications from our servers over the internet. These hosted services allow our students to start building programming skills immediately when they start a course, rather than having to manage an operating system and application stack first. And now, by moving our physical equipment to Prominic, our team at OST is free to focus even more fully on our core competency-delivering a comprehensive learning platform to our students.