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Merit VDC Service keeps New Jersey Institute of Technology Online during Hurricane Sandy

By Greg Monroe, December 2012

Like many universities across the country, New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) has remained on the leading edge of enterprise IT through their utilization of recent advances in cloud computing and virtualization on campus. These innovative technologies have enabled them to cut costs and provide more to their students, faculty and staff, while gaining flexibility and maintaining administrative control in the process.

And while NJIT has consistently delivered a high level of service, responding to emerging trends like Bring Your Own Device, and scaling with a campus that has grown significantly over the last decade, there are some IT challenges that are best met in collaboration with another organization.

The Challenge

In the final days of October, it became clear that the NJIT campus in Newark was in the path of Hurricane Sandy. For the IT team at NJIT, preparing for one of the most disruptive storms in recent history meant being ready for a loss of network connectivity, a prolonged power outage that could last days and even possible water damage to their data center environment. They decided that it was necessary to take proactive measures to ensure the availability of critical IT services. Deemed the most important piece to protect was the university's web presence.

"The NJIT website is the face of the university and all of its college websites," explained Kevin Byron, director of core systems for NJIT. "It is the primary communication tool among all members of the NJIT community. To have the website up [during a natural disaster like Sandy] was critical."

The NJIT team decided that the best way to ensure the availability of the university's website was to relocate their web presence. They sought a solution they could implement quickly with the storm approaching. They needed to act. And they needed to act soon.

Byron and his colleague, Matt Hoskins, senior enterprise architect for NJIT, reached out to NJEDge.Net. Similar to Merit, NJEDge.Net is a statewide, member-focused provider of network and related services and a trusted strategic partner to the higher education community in New Jersey.

NJEdge.Net connects member educational institutions like NJIT to a robust statewide infrastructure and supports member initiatives by assisting in collaboration. In addition, there is an especially close relationship between these organizations because NJEDge's main office is located on the NJIT campus and it relies heavily on NJIT's administrative assistance, infrastructure and personnel. NJEDge.Net was eager to assist their member NJIT in finding a solution for relocating their web server and other mission critical data during the storm.

Joe Rearden, business development manager for NJEDge.Net, had recently attended a presentation at the Fall 2012 Internet2 Member Meeting given by Merit Network Services Manager, Jim Moran. In the presentation, Moran described the Merit VirtualDataCenters (VDC) service.

Rearden recalled the presentation and thought it was a great fit for NJIT's needs. The Merit VDC provided a redundant, secure environment for applications. It could be designed to meet their specific needs and NJIT could configure the virtual machines themselves, retaining full control.

Additionally, the Merit VDC service leverages the efficiencies of virtualization, offering the same benefits of fully redundant physical infrastructure at significant cost savings, an excellent choice for relocating the NJIT web server, or any other high-visibility application.

"To achieve that level of redundancy on campus, the cost of infrastructure is phenomenally expensive. To have the ability to move it across the wire to Merit Network in Michigan-at a fraction of the cost-makes all the sense in the world," said Rearden.

Equally important to the NJIT Team in the face of Hurricane Sandy, the Merit VDC service provided a solution that could be turned up quickly-in what turned out to be a matter of hours.

A Perfect Match

After a preliminary conference call between Merit Network, NJEDge.Net and NJIT, the initial decision was made to pursue Merit VDC. Merit then introduced Byron and Hoskins to their Services Infrastructure team.

"What became clear was that there was common VMware expertise between both NJIT and Merit. NJIT has been centralizing and virtualizing for some years now, so we were familiar with the technologies Merit VDC utilizes. When we began to speak with our technical counterparts from Merit on the conference call, there was no doubt in my mind that this would be a real success," Byron said.

"Every piece just snapped together. These technologies, vSphere, vCloud Director, are things that we're using on our campus. It was an easy win, just a perfect match." Hoskins added.

"The success of NJIT using the Merit VDC was in no small part due to their extensive experience in vCloud Director and VMware virtualization," said Jim Moran of Merit.

The Merit VirtualDataCenters service offers a turn-key solution based on VMware's vCloud Director software. The most compelling feature of vCloud Director is that it enables administrators to create virtual machines and virtual datacenters that are ready for consumption in a matter of minutes.

And within three hours of the initial conference call, the Merit Services Infrastructure team delivered the credentials of the newly turned up virtual datacenter to the NJIT team. Hoskins immediately set to work designing the new virtual datacenter and transferring critical data. By the following afternoon, everything had been moved to Merit's environment and the new VDC had been successfully configured.

NJIT had some internal discussion about whether to wait and see if the storm caused a failure before redirecting traffic to the Merit location. But ultimately the decision was made to make Merit's environment the primary location for their web server ahead of time. And Saturday afternoon before the storm reached shore, the website for NJIT went live from the Merit VDC in Michigan.

Critical Communication

On Monday, October 29, as Sandy reached the coast of New Jersey and moved inland, New Jersey Institute of Technology was prepared. Even with a loss of power in the NJIT data center environment, there was no lag, no dead air on their website. And they were able to maintain their web presence throughout the duration of the storm and its aftermath. This proved to make all the difference for NJIT students, faculty and staff.

The NJIT campus lost power for approximately 22 ½ hours, beginning Monday night and continuing into Tuesday evening. And while power was restored, Newark and its surrounding areas were in such disarray from the storm that classes were cancelled for five days and the campus was closed until the morning of Saturday, November 3.

During the storm, NJIT staff were able to communicate campus-wide status updates via a text ribbon at the top of the NJIT webpage. These updates included class cancellations as well as services availability and restorations.

"That text ribbon had a 200 character maximum, but during the storm those were the most important 200 characters on the entire site," Byron said.

The updates included a link to the NJIT SOS Blog, which contained more detail than could be communicated effectively through the text ribbon. NJIT SOS is a Wordpress blog, so the infrastructure was logically distinct from the NJIT campus and available.

In the days following the power outage on campus, the number of hits on the NJIT SOS Blog skyrocketed. The ribbon and NJIT webpage were clearly important to a great number of people. Byron and Hoskins observed that most users who accessed the blog and website during the storm did so using smartphones.

A Sound Solution

Confident in the web server operating out of Michigan, the NJIT team made it a point to take ample time and consideration bringing IT operations back online in order to ensure a smooth transition, even after power was restored on campus. They allowed the batteries in their datacenter's UPS (uninterruptible power supply) equipment to charge completely and tended to other areas that needed to be refreshed or repaired. Early Wednesday morning, they restored critical IT operations across campus, opting to wait longer for non-critical functions.

On Friday, November 2, pleased with the restoration on campus, the NJIT website was returned to its primary location on the NJIT campus datacenter environment in Newark. NJIT, NJEDge.Net and Merit agreed that it was a successful undertaking and were pleased with the ease with which it was accomplished.

"This is a made-to-order demonstration of how this kind of service could be beneficial for other organizations. The process was done so quickly and so smoothly. It is a great advertisement for cloud provisioning services," said Byron.

"Merit is very pleased that our VDC service was a perfect fit for NJIT's Business Continuity strategy. This is an excellent example of how a trusted community cloud environment can benefit organizations everywhere," said Elwood Downing, vice president of member relations, communications, services and product development, Merit Network.

"NJEDge.Net and Merit Network have formed an excellent relationship in the national research and education community through collaboration. It's great to see that collaboration translate to support and assistance to members in times of need," said Leslie Williamson, director of services, Merit Network.

The NJIT team was so pleased with the quick turn-up, ease of use and flexibility of the Merit VDC service that they are considering relocating more of their applications to the Merit environment in Michigan as a permanent Business Continuity solution.

With the success of the website and DNS server relocation, the next tier down of critical applications that NJIT considers having permanently backed up in the Merit VDC are their authentication services that enable access to externally hosted services including, Gmail, Moodle, and iTunes. In many instances, NJIT has moved these services to various locations on campus to keep them up while performing maintenance or rebuilds. They believe it makes sense to have the ability to relocate them safely and securely at Merit's site in Michigan in those instances.

Growing the Community Cloud

The Merit VirtualDataCenter service came from the notion of a "Community Cloud" for Merit Network Members. The idea that together Merit Members can leverage economies of scale to share and reduce the cost of infrastructure while at the same time support one another's initiatives by backing each other up is one that has gained momentum in Michigan's research and education community.

NJEDge.Net and NJIT understand the benefits of creating a Community Cloud for New Jersey's educational institutions and have been championing the idea for some time. Byron, Hoskins and Rearden hope that the Merit VDC success story will be impetus for schools in their community to come together to form a Community Cloud of their own.



Visit the Merit VirtualDataCenters web site for more details about this service.


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