Birmingham City University supports student mobility with multi-million pound data centre overhaul

Birmingham City University (BCU) has enabled a mobile and flexible learning environment for thousands of students following a multi-million pound overhaul of its data centres.

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Birmingham City University (BCU) has enabled a mobile and flexible learning environment for thousands of students following a multi-million pound overhaul of its data centres.

The Midlands university supports over 23,000 students and 3,000 staff between 10 higher education sites across Birmingham.

In 2012 BCU began a project to replace its legacy data centres - designed around its previous IBM mainframe environment - with the construction of two new facilities. Following an EU tender process, the contract for works was handed to Logicalis in a deal worth close to £4 million.

The university has now gone live with the new data centres, which have added the capacity and resiliency lacking in its outage-prone legacy infrastructure, allowing it provide 24/7 mobile access to applicaitions for students.

"The students work in a very different way to when I was at university - it is almost an anywhere any time type delivery,” said Shaun Buffery, associate director for converged infrastructure at BCU.

“They are expecting that services are up and running when they need to use them rather than during the traditional teaching timescales. It is being able to address that demand which created the need to [transform the data centre]."

He added: “It answers that question of whether they can get to a service at 10 o'clock at night to look at study materials to revise from. They can do that now, whereas before we were vulnerable.”

Ageing data centre infrastructure

In the past the university had experienced a number of outages due to its creaking systems which consisted of a “sprawl” of different equipment vendors, with the server rooms built to support mainframe architecture used by the university up until the early 2000s.

Its legacy data centre infrastructure comprised four IBM blade chassis with 14 blades each, three HP C3000 chassis and one C7000, alongside a small number of Dell servers and Sun-based AMD servers. 

Under the deal with Logicalis, these systems were replaced with six HP C7000 chassis, each with 16 HP blade servers, and virtualised with VMware’s ESX hypervisor to support 331 virtual machines across 23 hosts. The chassis are all connected with HP Flex 10 technology to a 10GB network backbone. The university has also increased its storage from 140TB to 400TB.

BCU is now up and running on its two new data centres set up in an active-passive configuration five miles apart – one in the southern campus and one in the centre.

This has improved the resiliency and enabled the university to failover to its secondary facility using VMware management tools, reducing the risk of service outages.

"We were very prone to outages due to power failures in the past - be they onsite or in the local area. If we lost that single server room we were off-air," said Buffery.

"Business-wise we needed to update stuff because it wasn't keeping up with where we needed it to take us. We wanted to modernise it so we could guarantee we would be able to provide services to the university, which wasn't the case in the past with a single server room."

"Now with the resilient set-up, the mirroring and use of the VMware disaster recovery processes we can keep those services running from either data centre."

Mobile device demand

The legacy network systems also struggled to cope with changing demands from students, with the number of mobile devices supported tripling in recent years.

Logicalis was also charged with updating the network to 10GbE wired and wireless LAN delivering a range of applications including student records, e-learning suite, finance and HR. BCU has now rolled out Cisco Unified Communications Manager to 4,000 users.

“On average we are seeing some where been 7,000 and 9,000 devices on our wireless network daily. That has gone up by a factor of three over the past few years. If you look around at our students, they have two or maybe three devices each - it has grown an awful lot,” said Buffery.

“We are well into a world where university students have never know life without the internet, and the requirements that brings: being able to access stuff any time you want and being able to review that content at convenient times, rather than turning up to a lecture and being delivered content there and then.

“That is what is driving this investment we are seeing across multiple universities at the moment.”

Future plans – virtualised application delivery

The revamp of its data centres is almost complete, with plans to switch off the remaining legacy servers this summer.

With its new systems in place, the university is now able to pursue new IT projects, and has the ability to support more flexible delivery of applications to students and staff. 

A virtual desktop infrastructure roll-out is now being considered, Buffery said, and BCU is currently running trials of virtualised application delivery.

“We are now looking at starting to deploy virtualised application deployment, which is what the infrastructure now allows us to - we wouldn't have been able to do that before," he said.

“So if a student requires a specific application or course, then that could potentially be streamed down to their laptop or other device, and then when they don't need it, it comes off the device. That is a benefit that is going to come in the next six to 12 months.”