University of Hawaii College of Education harnesses OpenStack to support faculty research via a secure private cloud

UHM OpenStack
Monitoring the OpenStack cloud

Universities are in the business of education, and their IT organizations are often small and overburdened. As evidenced by the high level of activity from academic institutions, many know from experimenting with cloud projects in the lab that they’ll be able to operate more efficiently with OpenStack—if only they can get a production-grade cloud up and running.

The University of Hawaii at Manoa (UHM) College of Education (COE) is a research college in Honolulu on the island of Oahu that supports faculty, staff, and students on several remote islands. Faculty at UHM COE wanted to tap into cloud storage and compute resources to improve their research and productivity. Cloud resources could accelerate their work and their time-to-deploy services, without having to depend on the university system’s centralized IT department.

A move to the cloud was a sensitive subject, however. After data breaches that exposed students’ personally identifiable information resulted in a class action suit against the University System, UH’s IT department was tasked with keeping faculty researchers from hosting unencrypted data on public cloud servers.

UHM’s College of Education had just one senior IT staffer at the time, but it needed to figure out a way to both adhere to the university system’s guidelines and give faculty researchers what they needed.

“We are one college within a large research university, and the vision for our office is to augment the services offered at the university system level with whatever is required to efficiently operate our college,” said Paul McKimmy, Director of Technology and Distance Programs for the College of Education.

Open Source Vs. Commercial Alternatives

At a strategic level, using open source rather than commercial software made sense for the College of Education on two levels—philosophy and value.

McKimmy, whose job is to support instructional and administrative technology within the college, has been using open source software since 2008, in part to demonstrate that educators don’t need to rely on or pay for Microsoft, Apple, and other proprietary software. “I believe there are a lot of benefits to schools and universities who adopt open-source software into their teaching and business practices,” he said. “I enjoyed watching the light bulbs go off over students’ heads when they understood the paradigm shift from proprietary software, and how they could use open-source software themselves.”

The “free” aspect of open source is only one benefit, of course; the other is collaboration and development. As a research organization, the UHM College of Education strives to be on the forefront with its methods and technology, and is using open source software as the basis of its cloud strategy fit into that spirit. They also saw the open cloud as a way to scale their efforts easily, and with the right technology in place, to maximize efficiency.

The College of Education had already chosen Ubuntu Linux as the operating system for its server platform, with support from Canonical. Because Canonical markets OpenStack, when the college’s IT staff started looking at virtualization and cloud options to give the 400 faculty and staff what they needed, OpenStack made sense for its entry into the cloud. “So, that’s what turned us on in the beginning,” McKimmy said.

He also considered commercial cloud offerings, including VMware, but found them cost-prohibitive. “We were very keen on having virtualization and cloud technology support to faculty research,” he said, “but we were unprepared to spend an arm and a leg on it.”

McKimmy and a former staffer did a quick cost comparison between OpenStack and VMware.  Hardware and staffing costs were comparable; the main difference in cost was the software. From a licensing perspective alone, they determined it would cost just under $1000 for VMware per virtual machine, vs. less than $50 for OpenStack. A VMware deployment would also require a Fibre Channel storage area network (SAN), which would would make going the VMware route even more expensive.

Open source solutions, especially at the infrastructure level, gave the college the flexibility to look around, find the best partner for their needs, and evaluate the services and their situation, without being bound by what McKimmy called a “hyper-expensive and unrealistic” license.

To that end, the UHM College of Education initially deployed seven compute nodes, three controllers for high availability (HA), and three Ceph nodes for Glance, object storage, and Cinder. They used the Ceph RadosGW with Swift for backup to local storage. The college’s OpenStack environment runs on Ubuntu as the host operating system, and uses Neutron for networking.

Turning to Mirantis for Help Deploying a Production Private Cloud

The UHM College of Education’s first experience with OpenStack, in 2012, was not entirely pleasant. They started out with the Essex release in 2012, followed by Folsom in 2013. Neither release was production-ready. Some commands weren’t implemented yet, operators would have to edit in the database, and workarounds weren’t documented.

To make things worse, the College of Education had proprietary disk array storage appliances it wanted it wanted to include in its OpenStack deployment, but drivers for the devices didn’t exist. The IT staff decided to try to implement Ceph, the open source software-defined storage system that provides object, block, and file system storage on commodity hardware.

Besides buggy software and uncooperative proprietary storage, the college faced periodic power outages, plus cooling and other power and infrastructure issues in its makeshift data center. The COE’s small IT team decided it needed someone to guide them in those first steps of adopting a new technology—who could help them bridge the technology gap between what they knew and could understand, and how it could be applied in practice.  “After a while, we picked Mirantis to do that,” McKimmy said.

This was before Mirantis had its own OpenStack distribution. The Mirantis deployment engineer assigned to the UHM College of Education came in and “just got it working,” a former IT staff member said. The Mirantis engineer even went out of his way to ensure that even hardware they had not expected to use could function as compute nodes in a Ceph cluster.

When problems come up, as they inevitably still do, getting help finding the root cause of something that’s often not easy to pinpoint helps them resolve issues more quickly. “We do have tickets, problems arise, there is no doubt about it,” the former staffer said, “but with a strong support partner, you can overcome them.”

The Benefits of an OpenStack Cloud

Rolling out an OpenStack cloud gave the college flexibility, and the IT team found that moving from server infrastructure to a virtualized infrastructure let them meet faculty demands as they arose, and fostered the spirit of innovation that already existed at the College of Education. 

For example, one faculty member created a 3D virtual learning environment in OpenSIM, an open source virtual world similar to Second Life. This research and development project had the goal of enhancing students’ social presence through the use of a mixed-reality 3D virtual learning environment combined with a physical classroom.  The project, dubbed the Holodeck, brings the virtual world and the real world together as a “mash-up.” Using the Holodeck, on-campus and online students were able to come together both physically and virtually and take part in class activities.

The college’s OpenStack cloud met the following use case goals:

  • Supports faculty in their research by providing fast and convenient computing and storage resources
  • Provides comprehensive file sharing and synchronization (via OwnCloud on the OpenStack cloud) to store sensitive data as part of the university’s security initiative
  • Runs the workloads of public website, intranet, and student information systems

“OpenStack was a very attractive option for us to get started and to learn about technology, and ultimately be creative with it,” McKimmy said.

“We are not in the business of doing IT,” McKimmy said. “We are in the business of teaching courses and providing educational services at the undergraduate and graduate level, all the way through doctorate.” Using OpenStack lets the College of Education focus on its core competency—academia—and still take advantage of technology that the faculty can integrate into their coursework and research.

What UHM COE Likes About OpenStack

The College of Education’s IT staff was surprised about OpenStack’s ability to tie into other systems, and appreciated its flexibility. “We started out not utilizing any object storage at all, just doing box storage in Essex,” a staffer said. “We never really ran a Swift cluster, but now we actually run Ceph, so it was great just to turn it around and be able to say, well, you know what, maybe Swift is not for us, maybe Ceph is better, in our case. It’s really more customizable than I originally thought.”

What OpenStack Still Needs

As OpenStack has evolved from the realm of large enterprises managed by server and virtualization pros, it needs to become easier to use, the College of Education staff said.They would like to see an improved graphical user interface. While Horizon is great, one staff member noted, it’s not complete, and it’s often not intuitive for non-techies to understand what’s going on.

No two OpenStack installations are alike, and the documentation doesn’t always reflect the interdependencies. “It would be great if the command line utilities or Horizon would tell me that this is actually not a good idea—this will actually break your installation, and you are going to be in deep trouble if you execute this command right now,” a former IT staffer said. “OpenStack has a very comprehensive Wiki, but it doesn’t explain everything.”

What’s the most important takeaway from the College of Education’s OpenStack experience so far? “Find the right partner who is able to deliver a production cloud and not [just] some form of lab environment, which I can set up myself.”

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