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Wisconsin blizzard vs. data center: How marquette won

Shane O'Neill | Feb. 28, 2011
As blizzards raged across the Midwest in January, snow piled up on the data center roof at Marquette University and wreaked havoc with cooling systems. Here's how Microsoft's Lync unified communications tool helped IT fight back.

FRAMINGHAM, 28 FEBRUARY 2011 - Marquette University's IT department deployed unified communications tools to improve collaboration among faculty and staff — IT staff collaboration wasn't the priority. But as it turned out, Microsoft's (MSFT) Lync suite of voice, videoconferencing and instant messaging tools proved to be IT's life raft during a snowstorm-related data center calamity.

During a January blizzard so snowy that the Milwaukee-based university closed, the HVAC units that run Marquette's data center short circuited, after wind-driven snow piled up and then melted inside the air conditioning condensers on the roof.

"We ended up losing all three of the AC units," says Dan Smith, Marquette's Senior Director of IT Services.

It quickly became dangerously warm in the data center: Smith and his staff realized IT staffers had to start shutting down servers before they shut down themselves from the heat.

But on a day of heavy snow, when all IT team members were at their homes or travelling, it wasn't easy to get everyone on the same page to discuss a plan of action. The team had not used Lync's conference call feature for an all-hands-on-deck crisis situation before.

Marquette systems manager Adam Garsha, who was the first to be alerted about the overheating data center, set up a conference call with 12 IT team members using Lync. Marquette had tested Lync as part of Microsoft's TAP program and chose to deploy it instead of Cisco's UC suite due to Microsoft's lower licensing costs. During the rollout, Marquette moved the university's entire faculty and staff off Siemens PBX phone systems and onto VoIP-enabled Polycom phones that use Lync as the call manager.

The Lync conference call allowed IT team members to talk and IM inside the same app (videoconferencing is also a Lync feature but the Marquette did not use video in this instance). There was much discussion about what to do if the AC units were still down when the university reopened the next day.

"We were all at home or travelling, but we all joined a Lync conference call and brainstormed," says Smith. "We realized we'd have to shut down most servers and start up in the redundant data center if the HVAC units could not be fixed. We do not have automatic failover for systems, so that migration could take hours."

At about this time, the Web server in the data center shut down from the heat.

Smith and team members braved the snow and headed to the data center to open windows and turn on fans. The team concluded that if the Web server was down, the same would happen with other important servers. Servers at risk included those running Oracle (ORCL) databases, which control the financial and student registration systems, and the D2L e-learning systems that professors use to post syllabuses and class schedules online.


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