Hardware

IT System Management for Academics

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Universities and other learning institutes have developed many different strategies for how they provide computing and infrastructure services to their users. For some schools, a cloud model makes both technical and financial sense as a way for the IT group to deliver applications and services effectively and efficiently. For others, well secured and backed up in-house hardware gets the job done, while most go with a combination of both.

Once upon a time, offering basic services—networking, clients, servers, and applications—was all that an academic IT group would ever be called on to provide. Now departments and schools are asked of a lot more from employees and students. If you’re tasked with meeting those expectations, the infrastructure you build must accomplish three things.

1. Break it down

Services, applications, and infrastructure should be broken into individual pieces and offered on that basis. That means:

  1. Supporting virtual servers to provide those services.

  2. Investing in software-defined networks that provision network capability that changes as rapidly as the demand for computing services from your users.

Thinking of your internet technology in smaller increments means thinking of your infrastructure in more complete terms—servers, storage, and networking, all under the control of software that can manage individual services and allocate resources on demand.

2. Add it up

Breaking up your service offerings into small pieces makes no sense if you continue to account for your internet technology in old ways. An out-of-band management style that breaks things up allows for the feeding data to accounting systems without adding traffic to the production network or servers. Out-of-band management also allows for users to still do what they need to even if your system experiences some unplanned downtime.

Between new services, security, and the avoidance of outages, the importance of out-of-band servers and network infrastructure increases dramatically. You'll want to specify systems (including transaction-ready storage) that can cope with changing demands.

3. Lock it down

Smaller computing units mean a greater number of points of potential intrusion. Security, then, becomes a service that is part of everything else you offer to internal customers.

Current-generation servers offer features that provide tremendous assistance in keeping data and resources safe. Regardless of whether the server CPUs are made by Intel or AMD, similar features allow administrators to:

  1. Explore the ways in which your target operating system (or hypervisor) makes use of these features.

  2. Ensure you have configured the operating system to take advantage of those features.

When you look to the cloud for a model, you add a bit of complexity to your IT operation, but you significantly increase the number of services you can provide and the quality of those services.

Modern academics and employees have built their expectations on cloud services. Make sure:

  1. Your hardware infrastructure is up to the task

  2. You've built the right software for management and accounting

Then you'll be ready to provide the kind of IT service that keeps researchers, academics, and students happy and productive

How can we help you help your students?

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The Right Data Storage For Your School

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A Datacenter Filled With Small Servers


As the economics of cloud computing continues to evolve, many school districts are asking whether moving their entire datacenters to the cloud is the best way to improve IT response and keep IT on budget. There are certainly advantages to some cloud services, and any modern educational IT infrastructure should contain some elements that are cloud-based. But there are also reasons to keep some IT functions local. For those, a datacenter furnished with multiple small servers can be the perfect answer.

Converged, Not Hyper-Converged

The arrival of converged systems means that educational IT professionals have an ideal answer for many applications. Notice that it's converged systems we're talking about and not hyper-converged systems.

The highly virtualized and automated operation of a hyper-converged system is perfect for organizations with rapidly changing load levels and requirements, but most educational IT systems value stability and regularity. For those characteristics, the overhead of the hyper-converged system is difficult to justify.

Converged systems have little additional overhead compared with separate components deployed around a datacenter and a host of benefits. Converged systems tend to reduce, rather than increase, the management load of an IT staff.

  • There are physical savings that come from putting as much as possible into a single rack enclosure

  • There is the assurance that all of the components are certified by the vendor to work together

Ultimately, the key to justifying and successfully deploying small servers in a district datacenter boils down to understanding the applications that prefer the local hosting treatment.

Examples of data that might benefit from staying on local servers rather than being transported to cloud servers include:

  • Sensitive personnel records

  • Student records with personal identification information left intact

  • Financial information

Where The Cloud Comes In

That is not to say there's no role for cloud services in the modern IT infrastructure. The secret is understanding which data can best be stored in the cloud and which needs to remain in the local datacenter.

The decision should be somewhat easier with a converged datacenter because an integrated hardware stack can be configured to more easily be deployed as part of a hybrid system with cloud services.

The networking piece of the converged stack is especially important to ensure that data is shared as part of a seamless process, rather than simply being passed off from one type of computing equipment to another.

From an economic standpoint, the self-hosted pieces of the infrastructure have an advantage in that the ongoing cost will be fixed over the life of the converged stack. That cost can be lower than many professionals anticipate because, for most districts, small servers will be sufficiently powerful to handle the applications and data sets required. Current Techhologies has found that when multiple small, on-site servers combined with the right cloud services, the result will be a secure, economical IT infrastructure that will handle school needs for years into the future.

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Stop Entry Level Shaming

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There’s something about that label. “Entry level” systems are seen as insufficiently powerful, marginally useful, and utterly degrading when placed on a professional’s office desktop.

This characterization might have been accurate years ago. But today, even entry-level systems can be capable, powerful computing devices that, under the right circumstances, can be “cool” for users to work with.

Moving entry-level systems from stigma-inducing to cool requires properly making a handful of critical decisions. Get them right, and your organization could save significant money while boosting user satisfaction with new systems.

What is Entry Level?

It usually starts with a modestly powered CPU (often one generation behind the current market leader) and continues to have the following:

  • Minimal RAM (generally 4 GB at this point)

  • Basic graphics capabilities (sometimes, those on the motherboard; other times, those available from an inexpensive graphics board)

  • Gigabit Ethernet

Wrap it all in a basic box with a standard keyboard, mouse, and video monitor, and you have your entry-level system, which in many cases, is exactly what most of your employees need.

It Might be the Perfect System

As companies race to embrace cloud services, it can be argued that the entry system is the perfect system for most employees to use.

It might be that what you need is an internal marketing campaign, not a larger budget for desktop workstations. It all depends on the job you’re asking systems to do and the way you present the systems doing the job.

Chromebooks are the very definition of minimalistic workstations. The barest entry-level workstation will be more powerful than the most powerful Chromebook, so comparisons should be frequently made when talking with employees.

Spend Where it will be Noticed

Spend a few dollars on the components that have the biggest impact on user satisfaction.

1. Keyboard

There is now a dizzying array of keyboards available for purchase. Most of the keyboards that make the “enterprise-class” grade are within a few dollars of one another, so employees can be allowed to “customize” their system with little difference in purchase price and no difference in support costs.

2. Mouse

The IT department could offer employees their choice from a selection of mice or other pointing devices to be used at the desktop.

For minimal difference in price, the employee has a maximum feeling of personalization.

3. Monitor Size

The enterprise standard has been twenty-one-inch or twenty-four-inch monitors for nearly a decade. But today, it’s possible to purchase twenty-seven-inch monitors for little to no more money.

The entry-level system doesn’t need to be a symbol of shame, for it can gain access to cloud-based services and information as equally well as more expensive systems. And if the IT department will allow for some choice in input devices and monitor, the users will come away feeling more digitally empowered than ever before.

Get The Most Out Of Entry Level

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Data Center Upgrade: Not All Or Nothing

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Everyone wants one screen to rule them all: one console display to monitor and manage all systems in a data center. According to some vendors, the only way to achieve this management “nirvana” is to bring in the forklifts and replace every system you own in one swoop. If you have an unlimited budget and no executive committee to report to, that's a suitable and realistic plan.

For the rest of us, the good news is that there is a better alternative: updating servers as they hit the end of their life cycle according to the refresh cycle. A mixed fleet of servers can be highly manageable if you consider a handful of key issues while you're building and evolving the servers within.

Picking The Server Management Framework

Several decisions follow the initial decision of which server management framework is selected. The basic split is between a framework from a hardware vendor and a framework independent of any hardware tie. While they are alike in many ways, there are key differences that will have major implications for your hardware choices.

Hardware-Tied Or Vendor-Neutral?

First, it seems obvious that a hardware-tied management framework should be at the top of your candidate list if all your servers are from a single vendor. While each new generation of servers has features that work more closely in concert with management applications, the vendor's software will typically work with at least three previous generations of hardware.

Vendor-neutral frameworks may lack the ability to take advantage of some specific server features, but they tend to offer consistent management across all servers of a particular generation and across two or three previous generations. They also can be cheaper depending on a multitude of factors. The real advantage of these frameworks involves existing analytics packages that you want to continue using. Integration with a wide range of third-party software is a strength of several vendor-neutral management systems.

Preparing For The Future

With all of these management frameworks, one of the most important considerations is how well the package prepares you for the future, since changing the software that manages a fleet of servers is not something to be taken lightly. Whether the management framework comes from a hardware vendor or not, it will be the tool that allows you to manage new servers and server blades as they are brought into service through the normal hardware refresh cycle.

As servers become part of a growing ecosystem of platforms that support virtual or software-defined functions, a management framework that supports all components of an integrated environment, from the server to storage to the network, becomes more important.

A single pane of glass that allows you to monitor and manage absolutely everything in the infrastructure is not yet available, but you can have a data center management system that will provide direct management of the servers in a diverse fleet while allowing integration with platforms that manage networking, storage, and other functions.

Another valid option for network monitoring and management is hiring a managed service provider (MSP). The advantages of hiring an experienced MSP like Current Technologies are numerous and include spending less on IT personnel, the MSPs are experts, you can rest easy knowing that someone else is protecting your network, and it is cheaper than and easier than doing it yourself.  It isn’t surprising that 70 percent of CIOs partnered with outside experts to plan manageable growth in 2018, find out what we can do for you today.

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9 Network Vulnerabilities You Should Address Now

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Finish the year on a secure note

Research from Spiceworks, a network of IT professionals, highlighted more than 70% of respondents rated security as their top concern for 2018. With the hacking epidemic on the rise, here are nine things involving hardware and software that can be done to help stop you from worrying about your business' security.

Hardware

Sure, software is the greater hacking risk, but many hardware vulnerabilities are software-based. Older equipment is often missing new built-in security features like:

  • Unified Extensible Firmware Interface (UEFI) with Secure Boot

  • Self-healing basic input/output system (BIOS)

  • Pre-boot authentication (PBA)

  • Self-encrypting drives

That’s why you should be auditing and planning to remove:

  1. Computers with conventional BIOS- They can’t run Secure Boot, which helps to prevent malware loading during the boot process.

  2. Computers lacking pre-boot authentication or a trusted platform module (TPM), which stop the operating system from loading until the user enters authentication information, such as a password.

  3. Old routers, which can have easily hacked vulnerabilities.

  4. Drives that don't self-encrypt- Self-encrypting drives (SEDs) need a password (in addition to the OS login password), and the technology automatically encrypts and decrypts data on the drive.

On a side note, old drives leave you vulnerable in another way: you could lose data when they fail, which they will.

Software

Getting your hardware straight will almost always involve spending money, but fixing up software could be as simple as running those free updates you never got around to. Here’s what to look at:

  1. Unpatched or out-of-date operating systems- Windows XP has been beyond its support period for nearly three years but is still running all over the world despite there being no updates, no technical assistance, and limited efficacy with anti-virus. And old operating systems always have fewer security features than new ones.

  2. Unpatched or out-of-date productivity software- It’s highly risky to run unpatched versions of Microsoft Office, especially older versions like Office 2002, Office 2003, and Office 2007. They can give a hacker access to the rest of a system, with particularly catastrophic consequences if the user has administrative privileges.

  3. Legacy custom applications- If running an old version of Office is a risk, imagine the danger of running legacy custom software, particularly if you’re no longer doing business with the vendor (or the vendor is no longer in business). When your legacy software was being coded, the vendor probably wasn’t thinking of the sort of security attacks that are common today.

  4. Unpatched web browsers- No browser is entirely free of security vulnerabilities. Common vulnerabilities include URL spoofing, cross-site scripting, injection attacks, exploitable viruses, buffer overflow, ActiveX exploits, and many more. Always, always run the most recent version.

  5. Out-of-date plug-ins- Everybody loves a plug-in, but they have a high potential for disaster, especially if you’re not running the latest versions.

Outdated Hardware or Software Shouldn't Stop You

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Servers Designed For The Real World

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Extreme conditions call for extreme servers


When most people think about servers and the rooms in which they live, they think of serious air-conditioning, dust-less raised floors, and row after row of pleasantly blinking lights to let everyone know that all is well. Sometimes in the real world of IT, the world where the data and applications actually live, there are no clean floors or carefully controlled temperatures.

A new generation of servers designed for the real world is emerging. With some tweaks, you can make the most adverse conditions tolerable for your hardware. So how do you deploy servers in those situations and have the confidence that they’ll be reliable for months or years on end?

1. Room To Breathe

The first parameter to consider is temperature. It is remarkable how many servers manage to function in small, unventilated closets with no real airflow and an in-closet temperature that would be reasonable in a sauna. 

Modern blade servers tend to be designed around convection cooling as well as fan-enhanced forced air. If you know that a server will be deployed in extreme conditions, don’t stuff it full of processors or storage boards. Allow the air to flow unimpeded between the components. Modern servers are capable of keeping themselves cool as long as internally air is allowed to flow.

2. Rack Space

Give some thought to how components are stacked in the rack, as well. In many cases, storage is placed at the bottom of the rack because it’s heavy and the stability is good. In extreme conditions, it can be worth looking for secondary sources of stability — bolting the rack to the floor wall — while the heat-generating spinning disks are situated above the processor units.

With careful rack construction, physics can work in your favor with convection currents adding to the airflow and heat dissipation.

3. Stop The Spinning

Another consideration is whether it might be possible to eliminate spinning disk storage altogether and replace it with solid state drives. This is one of the tradeoffs that will involve thinking about:

  1. The data that will be generated and used on site

  2. The budget for the system

  3. Whether network connectivity is available to make cloud or central storage a realistic possibility

4. And The Rest

Other considerations will include networking, backup, and connectivity for any on-site instrumentation that will be part of the deployment. With everything that is connected to the system, look for jacketed connectors and ask your vendor about rack fan units that can keep air moving in the warmest situations.

One more thing: monitor the environment. There are a number of possibilities for environmental monitoring and reporting, possibilities that range from those that are standard in blade server frames to separate temp/humidity/vibration reporting units. Current Technologies has been designing hardware networking and storage racks for 20+ years. Our experienced and knowledgeable team can deliver you a set up that will survive any conditions long into the future

After designing the server and rack properly, then keep an eye on the conditions inside the rack. There’s no reason why your server can’t survive in the most demanding circumstances.

Functionality In Every Climate

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