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Community cloud pushes Harvard out of the data center

Harvard's community cloud project will move the university into a new world of consuming IT resources as a utility.

This is the second part of the story on Harvard University's move to a community cloud.

Harvard CTO James Cuff uses every trick in the book to cram as much computing power into available space as he can.

Harvard Data Center Harvard's data center

He's got hot-aisle containment, hot rack containment and modern cooling and ventilation for a wide variety of gear. While most of the big tech brands are huddling together in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences racks, Cuff even manages to maintain a venerable rack of Sun gear in his cloud; it sits outside the hot-aisle containment unit and provides scratch storage, with a fat bundle of wires running up and over the ducting down into the hot box.

All that would seem like enough to enjoy some laurels, but the lesson of cloud computing is that location doesn't matter once you've got the pipe.

Spearheaded by MIT's Chris Hill, Harvard's research cloud is moving 90 miles down the Mass Pike to sit with infrastructure from Boston University, Northeastern University, the University of Massachusetts and MIT, doubling down on economies of scale. There is a 100 GBps pipe to carry data; even high-performance users will experience no practical change.

Hill says he's actively soliciting projects to run on the new infrastructure to spur adoption once the facility opens in 2012. From there on, it's essentially just a data center move for Cuff and the others; the end-user provisioning, management and monitoring will all stay the same: automated, remote and in the cloud.

Saul Youseff, who heads up Boston University's IT operations, is eager for the move.

"We're currently in a large computer room that's in the middle of the physics department over here," said Youseff. "We're running out of AC capacity and expanding would be a problem in any case because of noise."

The lesson of cloud computing is that location doesn't matter once you've got the pipe.

He runs support for the Atlas Experiment, about 11 racks of servers and 1 petabyte of storage. Once that moves, he loses nothing and gains direct access to the other participants' resources, and vice versa. Add in some "green computing" PR for politicians to crow over and the project is a winner all around, a living example of "community cloud."

This is all fairly futuristic for regular IT professionals, although many will sympathize with the space/power/cooling crunch. But the lessons are clear -- this will be what IT looks like going forward.

Once consolidation has happened, and if the network is there, this trend toward super density only accelerates, and IT starts looking for other tasks to push off its plate and focus on the goal of delivering resources or applications instead of babysitting cages.

The data center operators will do that, or the cloud operators (like Amazon), or you might just find enough likeminded people in your industry to invest in a community cloud project. NYSE Euronext announced a community cloud for financial firms this year, along with a giant data center revamp, exactly as the universities are doing.

And what comes next, five years from the new Harvard cloud? Is this the last data center Harvard operates? Cuff didn't want to be definitive. "It might be. I'd like it to be," he said.

Carl Brooks was the Senior Technology Writer for Contact us at

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