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College dropout is one-man IT shop — at college lab

College dropout is one-man IT shop — at college lab

Innovative brain scanning lab relies on just one system administrator

There's also a Cisco Catalyst 6509 switch, but luckily for King the Baylor College of Medicine has a networking group, so he doesn't have to manage that piece of technology. King manages Microsoft Exchange e-mail for the HNL and Computational Psychiatry Unit, but the college networking team manages the spam filtering and antivirus needs, taking much of the burden off of King in this area.

King singles out a few products that have helped him simplify his job, including Pillar Data Systems' storage and VMware's server virtualization.

The ability to manage all virtual servers from one interface, and advanced features such as live migration and high availability are the key benefits of using VMware, he says.

Virtualization does raise the threat of having a single point of failure for many workloads, though, he notes.

With VMware, "you've got everything you need in one space,"King says. "At the same time, if one server goes down you're going to lose a bunch of [workloads]."

A lot of VMware customers suffered from just such a problem recently, when a bug in a software update prevented virtual machines from booting up. King avoided the problem by not upgrading to the new software.

"It always makes sense to wait at least two weeks to install the newest version," he says.

King recently upgraded most of his storage to Pillar from IBM System Storage DS4500, an older product that IBM is no longer selling.

Pillar storage is designed to drive up disk utilization rates by providing extra RAID controllers. It's also billed as "application-aware," meaning it knows the requirements of specific applications and can dynamically reassign resources based on changing priorities.

For example, it's easy to move data from high-performance disk drives to the archive layer, King says. Pillar is able to squeeze lots of performance out of standard SATA drives that are not as expensive as Fibre Channel hardware, he says.

"You can selectively decide how fast or slow you want your storage to be," he says. "That's extremely important. We have lots of stuff we don't need on really fast spinning disk, but we need it on nearline availability."

When you're the lone ranger in a one-man IT department, "just finding enough time to stay focused on one thing" is the biggest challenge, King says. "I try to offer as much as I possibly can. We're not an Amazon. If we go down for an hour, we're not losing money by the second. It's an inconvenience but it's not the end of the world."

King provides services to about a half-dozen faculty members, and a few dozen doctoral students and researchers. Because of their high level of technical expertise, King does not have to deal with some of the minor problems that monopolize the time of a typical system administrator.

"The people here … are all pretty savvy," King says. "I don't have to deal with [users saying] 'I can't figure out how to get my printer installed, or the sound isn't working.' That makes it possible to get other stuff done."

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