Information technology at Bryant University was a twisted potpourri of hardware and software before Linux came along.
The concept of a centralized data center seemed unreachable amid the university's eclectic mix of Sun Microsystems, Hewlett-Packard and Dell hardware, but it was something that president Ronald Machtley wanted addressed by those in IT.
According to Art Gloster, the Smithfield, R.I. university's vice president for information services, the school -- now ranked the second most wired university by the Princeton Review – had "a little bit of everything and not much of anything."
Three separate data centers tracked the university's information about students, financing, human resources, class scheduling and alumni applications. An inventory check of the servers in use around the campus turned up between 74 to 78 servers. Some of them were rogue servers, Gloster said, whose existence had previously been unknown to the IT faculty.
Worse yet, the search had turned up a fact more startling than any "lost server" could have managed: Many of the servers at Bryant University were using only 10% of their capacity.
"It was not a very stable environment, and this was something we felt we needed to create," he said. "It was a reliability issue and a maintenance problem because of the number of vendors involved."
Essentially, the system had become decentralized, Gloster said.
The desire for change led Gloster and Rick Siedzik, Bryant's director of computers and telecommunications, to a resolution that included one part Red Hat Linux, one part IBM on the Power processing architecture and one part Cisco Systems for the university's enterprise resource planning needs.
With the work officially slated to be completed for the 2006 academic year, Bryant has already stripped out Sun hardware and replaced it with an integrated platform of IBM eServer p5 550 and BladeCenter JS20 systems running Red Hat Enterprise Linux, in conjunction with IBM TotalStorage DS4400 disk storage. The new system was chosen for its lower total cost of operation, increased performance and ease of use, Siedzik said.
"As a small university, we are faced with the goal of staying on the leading edge of technology as an academic pursuit, while faced with the constraints of a tight budget. IBM has met these confines with an integrated solution that will also allow us to easily scale up for future growth," Gloster said.
Bryant University currently employs 140 full-time professors and has enrolled 2,900 undergraduate students.
The move to Linux was an easy one, Gloster said, and he could not recall any apprehensions the university had toward an open source operating system when the talk of migration began in earnest.
The cost savings associated with Linux, as well as the weight of a vendor like IBM supporting it, were more than enough to convince the Bryant leadership that it was a viable alternative to proprietary models.
"We knew it was an OS that was going to be supported when [IBM] made the switch years ago," Gloster said. "And as far as challenges ... there was just the learning curve, but when something is new everything has a learning curve."
Gloster said by taking advantage of the benefits of LPAR on IBM's hardware, Bryant was also able to migrate its ERP application and SCT Banner, and consolidate five Solaris servers to two Power5 systems with failover capabilities, something that was not possible with the previous setup.
While the entire migration project is not scheduled to be completed until next year, Siedzik said the university's DBAs and other systems employees have already been able to measure the improvement over the previous deployment.
"It seems the application itself runs much faster, with better response times, and with those two machines we will be able to have high availability with some failover, which we didn't have configured in the Sun world," he said.
Linux filters into student life
With a brand new OS came a brand new building at Bryant, the Bellow Center, which houses the university's IT department and classrooms. The building even houses its own stock trading floor, along with a server room that contains the new servers running Red Hat.
"What we did was we took the servers out of their other location -- "the cave" we called it -- and moved those servers and combined them into an operations room in the Bellow Center," Gloster said.
Linux is also moving into the Bryant curriculum, with new courses in Unix/Linux comparisons popping up in the CIS department, Gloster said.
"We're moving into that arena where instead of teaching just Unix in the CIS department, we are moving to Linux and teaching Unix and Linux differences," he said.
Bryant University -- wired university
Today Bryant ranks as one of the most wired campus communities in the U.S., according to the Princeton Review, an independent organization that ranks universities and colleges on a variety of factors, including connectivity. For the 2005-2006 academic year, Bryant was ranked second in the category of connectivity. The prior year it was ranked sixth.
Gloster said every dormitory is equipped with Voice over Internet Protocol and students are assigned a VoIP number that remains with them throughout their academic lives at Bryant.
"I guess we are really pleased with the direction we have taken, for we have had no surprises yet. We wanted to venture into open source and figured Linux was most cost-effective approach to reach that goal," Gloster said. "We are not a large school and, in our case, we have to look at the resources we have to verify the support we acquire."
The future for Bryant could very well include the use of open source software (OSS) beyond the Linux OS. Gloster said his department is actively looking and watching for OSS applications that can continue to help the bottom line at Bryant.
As for more near term examples, Gloster pointed to the course management software Bryant is currently working on, called SIKIA, which is similar to the Blackboard software used by many large U.S. universities.
"The enterprise version of Blackboard is very expensive," Gloster said, adding that SIKIA is under development at universities like Cornell, Indiana and others as an open source, less expensive alternative.