June 2018 - The rectangular wing that juts out of the otherwise crescent-shaped Dan Dipert Career and Technical Center isn’t like the rest of the new building. It has no labs or classrooms, and it wasn’t built for students.
The gray, box-shaped structure was built for technology. This is the Arlington ISD’s new data center.
The data center doesn’t get as much attention as some other Bond 2014 projects, like the CTC itself, the new elementary schools or the future Fine Arts Center and Athletics Complex. But it is one of the most important projects because it helps provide those new facilities – and every other AISD campus – with the high-performing and reliable technology essential for optimal operation.
Though technology typically operates behind the scenes, it provides the foundation and platform for many of the AISD’s operations and, increasingly, academic instruction.
When technology doesn’t work, there are major problems.
Ensuring it does work – and works without interruption – is the reason the AISD built the new data center.
Before the new data center opened, the AISD’s network operations were scattered in multiple locations. The servers, technology equipment and staff were spread out in many places. Even worse, those locations did not all provide the level of cooling and power that the technology infrastructure needed, especially as the district’s demand for and reliance on technology increased rapidly.
“I remember times that a car hit a pole outside one of the old server locations and shut down the district’s network operations for 24 hours,” said Shane Norman, the AISD’s server manager.
Stability and dependability are paramount for technology operations, and though the AISD’s technology department did the best with what they had, they could guarantee neither.
“Our end goal is to be as responsive as possible to our end users – AISD staff, teachers and students,” said Chad Branum, AISD assistant superintendent of technology.
But with the old conditions, maintaining consistent network operations was a difficult challenge at best.
The 2014 Bond program offered the chance for a solution.
When the Career and Technical Center was proposed as a part of the bond program, the technology department seized the opportunity to be part of that project – to build a data center within the new facility.
If constructed on its own, a data center would be extremely expensive. But by incorporating it within the CTC, adjacencies could be leveraged, and costs shared and reduced.
“We saw the opportunity to build the solid foundation we need to provide these services,” Branum said. “We had the opportunity to do it right.”
Together with architects and AISD administrators, Branum and his technology co-workers spent months meticulously developing plans for the data center.
In designing the facility and the technology infrastructure to go in it, the future was kept in mind, along with the the district’s immediate needs. Technology is constantly changing and evolving, so the spaces and infrastructure in the data center were designed to allow for growth and change. And with its location in the CTC, the technology department developed a goal of future partnerships with the CTC in which students will intern and work with the technology department, giving them hands-on, real-world experience.
Construction of the CTC finally kicked off in early 2016, following designs by VLK Architects, and the data center opened in late summer 2017.
THE NEW DATA CENTER
The new data center includes a number of specific spaces and serves a variety of functions. First and foremost, it is a data center, hosting the district’s all-new servers, along with the batteries and UPSs (uninterruptible power supply) to keep the servers always up and running.
Keeping them running requires a tremendous amount of electricity and air conditioning.
“Cooling and power are everything for us,” Mike Gerron, AISD network manager, said.
So the new data center was designed to provide plenty of both.
It was also designed with excessive redundancy so that the district is never without technology. If power goes out in the district, there are generators to keep the technology going. And while the generators take time to kick in, powerful batteries run the servers in the meantime.
And the building itself was designed to withstand severe weather, so even in the midst of bad thunderstorms and even tornadoes, the district’s technology will stay safe and on.
Despite the building’s name, the data center houses more than just hardware. The staff of the AISD’s network and technical support departments all work there as well. Previously, the staff of these departments were scattered in multiple locations. Now, united in a common, open-concept space, collaboration is much easier and prolific.
“Now I get business done just from walking down the hall,” Barry Fox, AISD senior director of technology support and integration, said, referring to the fact that so many of his co-workers are right there together. He’ll walk down the hall, run into someone and end up discussing a work issue.
“It has greatly improved communication and efficiency,” he said.
In addition to office space, the data center also has a warehouse devoted wholly to technology.
“I never underestimate the value of a warehouse where we can stage our equipment,” Gerron said.
Previously, the district’s technology equipment was housed in various places across the district. Now all in one place, efficiency and productivity have improved. Before, technicians had to travel to wherever a piece of technology was stored to pick it up and then take it to where it was needed. Now, everything is stored together, right where the technicians work. Plus, the technicians can prepare and configure the hardware right there in the warehouse before distributing it.
Along with the warehouse, the data center has a test room, in which software and hardware can be tested before it is rolled out to the rest of the district. It gives the technology department a chance to make sure a piece of equipment or a program will work in the AISD environment before it is adopted or installed.
“We also have one of everything here,” Fox said.
At least one piece of every technology hardware used in the district is kept at the data center, so every piece of equipment the district has can be tested and troubleshot as necessary.
Up and running for about 10 months, the data center is performing as planned. The design and execution are working.
“We did it right,” Branum said.
Though the data center was done right, the job is not done. And it never ends. Providing outstanding technology and support to the district is a continuous and ever-changing challenge.
But thanks to the data center, the technology department is equipped to continue doing it right, so that ultimately – with technology running efficiently and without interruption – the AISD can provide students with an outstanding educational experience every day.