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IT Directs Gladstone Design

By Salvatore Salamone

June 14, 2005 |  When the new six-story, San Francisco home of the J. David Gladstone Institutes recently won an award for its design, at least part of the credit showered on its architects should have been shared by Gladstone’s information technology officer (ITO), Reginald “Reg” Drakeford, and many of Gladstone’s researchers.

Reginald Drakeford

Reginald Drakeford's 20 years
in the U.S. Navy benefited him
in "making things work in
small spaces."

Photo by Chris Goodfellow/
Gladstone Institute

Involving IT early in building design is a rare occurrence. More commonly, architects or facilities managers merely specify the dimensions and estimate the electrical and cooling requirements of a data center, leaving the challenge of transforming an empty space into a working IT environment to a post-design scramble by IT managers.

Not so for Gladstone’s data center, says Drakeford, who notes modern high-performance computing equipment defies earlier norms that allowed standardized building designs to be sufficient. Today, a simple change from stand-alone rack-mounted servers to blade servers radically alters the distribution requirements for electrical power and equipment cooling in a room.

By including IT and other research disciplines early in the design process, the Gladstone project avoided many post-design complications. “It’s an IT dream to start from scratch and work with an architect on design,” Drakeford says. It is likely Gladstone’s researchers feel much the same way — they toured a number of labs around the country and subsequently provided input on the layout of their workspaces during facility design.

Making Space

Close quarters was a major issue for Drakeford, who says the space allocated for the data center was about half of what was traditionally needed to support the number of researchers expected in the facility. Fortunately, his 20 years of Naval service have proved useful: “I have experience making things work in small spaces,” he says.
Gladstone’s ITO chose to take advantage of the latest server, telecommunications, and interconnection technologies. One example is Drakeford’s choice of voice over IP (VoIP) technology. The VoIP PBX system requires just seven rack units (7U) of data center space, compared with the digital PBX used in the old facility, which required an entire equipment closet.

With respect to the servers, Drakeford selected blade servers. “They offer more power in a small space,” he says. “We were able to replace three 5U servers with one 7U blade server which can hold 10 servers. That’s a gain of 20Us of space.”

Packing so many computers into such a tight space requires a different approach to cooling the equipment — a common issue in high-performance computing centers. In the past, the solution was to cool the entire room, but this is not energy efficient. More recently, the trend is to focus the cooling and heat removal directly onto server racks. That was the case here. “The cooling is very focused,” Drakeford says.

Drakeford also made room in the data center for his staff. “No matter how good the equipment, it’s only as good as the people managing and running it,” he says. He set aside space for a workbench that can be used for troubleshooting problems and making equipment repairs and upgrades.

Interestingly, a side benefit of the data center’s focused cooling strategy is a more comfortable environment for staff. “The temperature in the room is about 68 degrees around the equipment and a more normal room temperature near the workbench,” Drakeford says.

The new Gladstone facility, which opened late last year, is designed to support state-of-the-art research conducted by its three constituent institutes (cardiovascular disease; neurological disease; and virology and immunology).
Each institute occupies a floor within the new building. Floors are laid out in three long strips with administrative offices on one side of the building, facilities for high-end shared equipment (e.g., electron microscopes and sequencers) down the middle strip, and “open lab” space on the other side. It should be noted this particular floor layout reflects input from Gladstone researchers. In March, the San Francisco Business Times designated the building the city’s “Best New Office R&D Development,” noting the building’s combination of innovative aesthetic and practical features.

Awards aside, economical use of space will enable Drakeford to match the institutes’ anticipated growth of research staff from 325 to about 520 in a few years.

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