Building a Dream Data Center

What would your data center look like if you could build it from scratch? Steve Bugajski, CIO of Unison Health Plan, which operates public-sector health care plans in Delaware, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Tennessee, had a chance to live that dream.

The catch? He had only about three months to completely gut and then rebuild the Braddock Hills, Pa., facility, to which most corporate functions and the data center relocated in 2007. It could have been a nightmare.

With rapid growth–enrollment had more than doubled since the beginning of the decade–the company had come a long way from 1998, when Bugajski joined as director of systems and applications. Back then, the data center consisted of six homemade servers, a Compaq server, a monitor and a phone switch.

Today, the company supports more than 250 servers and hundreds of terabytes of disk storage. The new facility features 3-foot-thick concrete walls around the data center–about the only thing Unison kept in its slab-to-slab renovation. Here’s an edited and condensed version of a conversation Bugajski had with CIO Insight contributor Jennifer Zaino.

CIO Insight: What is the defining mission of the new data center?

Bugajski: Overall, it will support Unison’s growth with best-of-breed data center technology and practices. Our defining metric is membership: We currently provide health insurance coverage to 400,000 members. With the new data center, we can support at least 1 million members.

What kind of return on investment have you seen?

Bugajski: We have experienced high 9s as far as uptime is concerned. Regarding our previous data center, we did maintain high availability dealing with issues, but it took so much more effort to maintain the uptime compared to now.

How do you justify the success of the project?

Bugajski: In terms of the deployment, every employee left the old building on a Friday at 5 p.m. When they came in the following Monday at 6 a.m., they didn’t notice anything different.

What advantages were there in using an existing structure for the data center?

Bugajski: The facility already had diesel generators and dual-power generation feeds to our own power substation. We have a little more than 1 megawatt worth of redundant generator power for the entire facility.

The facility also had an outbuilding where I was able to place redundant enterprise-class uninterruptible power supply units–outside the data center. We were able to use trenched conduit underneath the concrete, so I could run the power directly into a newly constructed electrical room outside the data center.

Now all I have are two very clean, low-heat-producing power distribution units in the data center fed from the electrical room. Since we do not have as much heat in the data center, environmental monitoring and control are much easier and proactive with our new automated systems.

What are some of the efficiencies of the new data center?

Bugajski: Color coding. The floor tile is white where we walk, and grayish-beige for each of the server rows, so we never have to guess where the next cabinet is going to go. And all the cabinets are prewired, so we never have somebody on a ladder overhead running power or data cables. We just roll a cabinet in, pop the tile and plug in the two redundant power supplies.

What was the biggest challenge?

Bugajski: I broke my ankle and had to do this all in a wheelchair.

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