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Google, Amazon and the Boise State Public Cloud

Illustration of a cloud wearing a Boise State ball cap

“We’re over 95% virtualized, and that’s unheard of in higher ed,” Max Davis-Johnson, Chief Information Officer at Boise State University, tells me over the blues music and mechanical sounds of seasonal lattes being made at Starbucks in Albertsons Library. “We run everything in this: PeopleSoft, Blackboard, all our applications, everything we do here on campus runs in this environment. It’s really cool. This is our version of the cloud.”

So, what is the cloud?

Commercials tell us, “it’s in the cloud,” as if the cloud is some specific place or thing–it’s not. Generally, “the cloud,” is simply software and services that run over the Internet rather than on our computers. On the backend, the “cloud” is a system of networks and servers designed to handle specific tasks. And, there three basic types of clouds: public, private and hybrid.

Watching movies on Netflix or Amazon are examples of public cloud services. When we use Gmail, Google Drive and G Suite (formerly known as Google Apps), we’re working in Google’s private cloud.

Unlike public clouds that anyone can access, a private cloud is limited to one organization. If you have rights and access to a private cloud, you have access to the networking, virtualized storage and computing power of that cloud. The Office of Information Technology at Boise State uses this model to provide PeopleSoft, Blackboard and WordPress in what’s called a software as a service (SAAS) model. The software runs in our virtualized environment and is delivered over the network. We don’t have to install the software on our computers, it just runs in a browser. You must have a Boise State account to access the Boise State private cloud.

What’s really exciting is that we’ve implemented a hybrid cloud model at Boise State. We utilize the private cloud model for the systems described above but we’ve also integrated with other private clouds, primarily Google and Amazon. Gmail, Google Drive and G Suite applications run in Google’s cloud. We leverage Amazon Web Services (AWS) to run some features of myBoiseState. Of course, as students, staff and faculty, we sign in and seamlessly navigate among the services provided among these private clouds.

Tory Jamison, Associate Director for Cloud Services and Infrastructure, tells me that this integration of several private clouds is the key to our hybrid cloud infrastructure, “If we took a little time we could completely obfuscate the fact that your email was coming from Google if we wanted to make the effort.” He goes on to describe that “We provide servers and storage in a highly scalable way and we can leverage resources in the public cloud or on premises from our private cloud in the familiar way.” This is how we’re able to provide storage and computing power to researchers, colleges and departments around campus, “What we have, which is very unique, is infrastructure as a service (IAAS),” he tells me.

“We have to give it away for free”

Tory had the idea to virtualize the entire university onto a private cloud almost four years ago. Prior to that, all of our colleges and auxiliaries were still using the obsolete “rack and stack” model where every server was a physical server racked one on top of the other. One application on one physical rack mounted server is no longer the way it’s done. Although OIT managed about 90% of the network at the time, we only managed about 50% of the servers on campus. This meant most Colleges and auxiliaries were purchasing and running their own servers and data centers which meant the University wasn’t leveraging economies of scale. “We wanted to change all that,” Tory says.

OIT had already attempted the chargeback models for departments and researchers to utilize our network, storage and compute infrastructures, but, Tory says, “No one came.” That’s when he had the idea to move toward a converged architecture–a virtual private cloud that could scale in both compute and storage for years to come.

“We shouldn’t be innovative in everything we do, there just isn’t enough time in the day,” Tory says emphatically, “There are commodity concepts out there and we always look to leverage those efficiencies first. This allows us to focus our attention on innovation in areas that complement the direct education of students and furthering Boise State research interests. That’s why we’re here!”

Tory’s idea to converge and fully virtualize relied on a simple premise though and he told Max, “the only way this is going to work is if we give it away for free.”

“Of course it’s not actually free, it’s more like no cost to the colleges, but we’ll take those donations if you have somebody in mind,” Tory says. The idea is that OIT provides cloud services to anyone on campus and the University pays for these services once–through the OIT budget. “We’re too big to fail,” Tory explains, “If we run out of compute, or run out of storage, everybody runs out of compute and storage but it hasn’t happened yet, not even close.”

And it’s working. In the last three and one half years, Tory’s team took out nine data centers around the University and converged these into seven racks of virtualized platform in our data center here on campus. “Those racks run the entire University,” he says smiling. “When we absorbed all these colleges, not a single person was let go. We absorbed all those people. Somebody’s still needed to run the individual applications. We don’t have enough people to run 1,400 different applications! Using the economies of the cloud model, we want to provide the colleges and researchers with all the compute and storage resources they need so that they can spend their money on educating students or furthering their research.”

We also have a disaster recovery data center about five miles from campus, not in the Boise River floodplain. Everything on campus is backed up there every night. All of our tier 1 applications and data, like Blackboard and PeopleSoft, are backed up every 15 minutes. The idea is that if something happens to our primary data center, the disaster recovery center would take over. To emphasize how this works, Tory tells me, “It could be so smooth that you wouldn’t know our primary data center burned to the ground unless you were standing there watching it smoke.”

From a security standpoint, the data center is behind the University firewall so it’s protected. The entire Boise State cloud is monitored and managed by professional staff at Boise State.

Scalable, flexible, elastic…and fiscally responsible

“The thing about virtualization is that it’s scalable, flexible, elastic,” Max says. “In higher ed we are so diverse. Any one thing we do is not necessarily diverse, but then you look at everything we do, it’s pretty unique.” Tory puts some numbers to this for us, “We have about 1,400 virtual machines running around 1,200 different servers and applications.”

With over 95% of the campus virtualized, Boise State leads the way in higher education. “I haven’t talked to a single university that even comes close,” Tory says. “And when I go speak about this at conferences, representatives from other universities will come up to me and say, ‘Holy cow, we’ve been trying to do that for 20 years!’”

“[Virtualization] is cost effective because we buy at scale,” Max says. Tory explains that our hardware gets replaced every five years and that we’re using a new model he calls just-in-time purchasing, “Because the longer you wait [to purchase hardware], the more technology progresses and the less expensive it gets.”

“It’s far less expensive for us to do this ourselves. We couldn’t put 1,400 machines and 3.5 Petabytes of data in the public cloud,” Tory says. “It would cost something like $400,000 per month. We run the whole operation on $1.1 million per year.”

Running our own cloud saves us $3.5 million–annually.

We have storage and computing at your favorite price: free

Max explains that running our own cloud, “allows us, in the blink of an eye, when a faculty researcher says, ‘I need 10TB of storage,’ 30 minutes later it’s done.” “It takes me longer to ask who needs access to the data than it takes for me to set up the space,” Tory jokes. “Someone recently asked me for 125TB and we were like, ‘We got it.’”

“That’s what being in the cloud is all about–being able to provide stuff from a pool of infrastructure, to anybody, on demand,” Tory says.

“And, we have the R2 cluster coming online soon,” Max tells me. The R2 cluster will dramatically increase our computational power for research computing at Boise State.

Contact the Office of Research Computing for more information, or to request servers for storage or computational processing (or whatever you need), at researchcomputing@boisestate.edu.

Finally, you might want to check out the “Mad Max’s Crazy House of Research Computing” advertisement. Max wants to sell you some servers at your favorite price: free!

photo of Max Davis-Johnson as "Mad Max"

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