Data Center Upgrade Earns High Marks at CSU

SUMMARY: For more than 140 years, Chicago State University (CSU), Chicago?s oldest independently accredited public university, has produced thousands of alumni, from undergraduate through doctoral levels. Ce Cole Dillon, CIO at the university, describes how her team recently improved IT quality, efficiency and responsiveness by adopting an integrated data center monitoring solution.

Every organization requires ongoing improvement to thrive, and Chicago State University has continually grown and changed over the years. What started as a small teachers college is now a full-fledged state university that comprises five colleges, serves more than 7,200 students and hosts a world-renowned faculty. Although the CSU Information Technology Division (ITD) is not nearly as old as the university, it also has a legacy.

Within CSU?s ITD, the Network Operations Department supports a central data center consisting of Hewlett-Packard and Cisco infrastructure connecting more than 150 Microsoft, Linux and Solaris servers. The data center also uses VMware and maintains a storage area network (SAN).

Beyond the data center, our infrastructure includes campus computing resources distributed among the colleges of Health Sciences, Arts and Sciences, Business, Education and Pharmacy, as well as a distance learning division. Key applications used across the university are desktop tools, such as email, Web (including a student/staff portal), Microsoft Office Suite, Moodle (open-source software for producing Web-based courses) and the SunGard Banner integrated collegiate administrative suite running on Oracle.

Everything from infrastructure to applications and from management tools to processes must be updated periodically. In 2009, we realized that a key component of successfully delivering education services to the university community was robust IT services. Therefore, in 2010 the university began the process of upgrading its IT infrastructure, building out virtualization, and centralizing operations and support.

One of the challenges CSU?s ITD faced was its disparate set of IT management tools. Rather than using a cohesive system, we were using a collection of IT management applications and open-source utilities. We had outgrown this approach and wanted to advance our infrastructure monitoring capabilities.

In early 2010, I worked with my director of network operations to investigate more advanced infrastructure monitoring solutions that included network analysis, systems management, virtualization management and application performance management. My objectives were to increase operational visibility and control, better leverage ITD resources and improve support response?all while staying within a constrained budget. Most importantly, we had to move from a reactive mode to a proactive mode of potential problem detection, and we had to shorten our response time when we did have to react.

We believed that if we could meet these goals using a single management system, we could also increase our ITD staff members? flexibility, enable convergence of staff duties, and facilitate collaboration to grow an even more efficient and effective team. This would contribute to improved staff satisfaction and help produce a higher ROI for the project.

We brought in five leading vendors to present their platforms and ultimately chose AccelOps? integrated infrastructure monitoring platform for its comprehensiveness, usability, ease of implementation and value. Our more unified and integrated monitoring approach is paying off in the following critical scenarios:

Centralized Monitoring and Tool Consol-idation: Before deploying AccelOps, each of the six departments in ITD worked in a silo and had its own tools that focused on more elemental aspects of IT operations. The ITD team had limited centralized control and lacked operational visibility.

When a problem arose, a team would be pulled together from several ITD departments to assess it using separate tools. This approach was inefficient, and it also raised the costs of software licensing, tool-related support and maintenance, and training.

To resolve these issues, we scaled down to two ITD departments. Then, with AccelOps? help, we retired or migrated four categories of IT management applications: network performance monitoring, system availability monitoring, network asset management and security management. The vendor also added the capability to support virtualization management, as we are expanding our VMware implementation. Moving from our previous tool portfolio to the AccelOps platform represented an estimated capital saving of 25 percent, excluding savings from reduced ongoing training and maintenance costs.

Time Savings: Addressing potential issues before they become problems is less expensive and enables us to deliver services to our faculty, administration and students more effectively. AccelOps gives us the visibility and methods to proactively respond to such issues. When problems do arise, our team can quickly evaluate them and apply appropriate resources for resolution. We estimate savings of 30 percent in terms of work hours for my Level 2 staff in managing ITD operations that can now be applied elsewhere. This also reduces user complaints, enhancing our staff?s job enrichment and satisfaction.

Network and Application Monitoring: With the new integrated infrastructure monitoring platform, we can see the current status of the entire distributed campus network, identify problems, and understand the business impact of operational issues faster and with greater accuracy.

For example, our team was able to pinpoint and diagnose a configuration change to a switch that affected the virtual LAN (VLAN) associated with voice over IP (VOIP) communications. This took less than 15 minutes, and the problem was resolved within an hour.

In the past, several different teams would have had to review each component?from the help desk to the network to applications?taking an average of 4 hours to fully triage and resolve the condition. In contrast, with the integrated platform, the result is a 75 percent efficiency gain while using fewer resources.

Network Asset Management and Configuration Monitoring: AccelOps? configuration management database (CMDB) feature gives us a real-time view of our environment with accurate topology maps, assets and configuration monitoring. This enables the Network Operations team to produce hardware and software inventory true-ups and associate assets with different departments. We can also track and validate applied patches and see the operational impact of the changes.

In the past, it could take at least three IT staff members 15 percent or more of their time to enable ongoing maintenance of asset management and system integrity. The CMDB feature enables us to automate this function, receive alerts about changes, plan for further virtualization and document inventory using fewer resources?saving almost the equivalent of a half-time position.

Security Monitoring: We rely on security assets such as firewalls, DMZs and antivirus software. At CSU, as with any educational institution, a variety of users access the IT environment. In the past, my team could collect and analyze audit logs manually, but we lacked the automation capability needed to analyze security data and correlate it with other systems. We addressed this gap with AccelOps, which includes security and log management.

Service Monitoring: We implemented AccelOps in a short time frame and have been expanding its use. While providing more integrated infrastructure monitoring, we are beginning to define IT business services while transitioning to service-oriented management. In other words, our time is now better used providing existing services and planning for future services, rather than reacting to network issues or user concerns.

We have started to map out our ERP application and infrastructure dependencies. I also anticipate further tracking of IT services and being able to more proactively identify threats and problems that can affect service delivery.

Our IT organization continues to improve its quality and efficiency. In many ways, this can and should be a never-ending journey to advance people, processes and tools.

Some training was required to leverage all the AccelOps platform?s capabilities, but we estimate a payback in less than a year. We also anticipate a 25 percent reduction in the TCO of our IT management tools, with significantly more capability.

At CSU we have moved beyond relying on a disparate set of IT management utilities. Our data center employees now use and rely on integrated IT monitoring to prevent and resolve network-related hardware, software and security issues. This advance provides us with needed operational visibility, better operational control, better leveraged IT resources and improved responsiveness as we upgrade our IT infrastructure, build out virtualization, and centralize operations and support.

Ce Cole Dillon is the CIO of Chicago State University, where she is responsible for the IT organization and for all IT and audio-visual functions and extended data centers serving CSU?s five colleges.

More Stories