“My dream is that someday we’re going to come in here on a Saturday night, order a bunch of pizzas, and unplug everything in this room. Then, we’re going to put it all back together and hope everything still works.” -Scott Daily, Information Technology Director
My new boss said this to me when I was just a week into my new job, as he was giving a tour of the Teton Science Schools communications infrastructure to his two new recruits. Mani and I nodded solemnly as Scott went over every switch, server, and appliance in the room, identifying their positions in the electronic chain connecting TSS students, interns, and employees to each other and the outside world. I tried to keep everything straight, but after 30 minutes of explanation, I began to lose focus. I left the room confident in only one thing: if something broke or was cut inside this room, I would have no idea what to do.
Fast forward a few months, and the server room reorganization project went from a dream to a pressing action item. Funding was secured, staff were ready, and it was time to tackle the problem. Though it wasn’t a conscious decision at the time, I realized afterwards that our steps in the Great Server Room Reorganization of 2016 presented an example of applying the Design Cycle to a real-world problem.
There were two main problems we were trying to solve in our reorganization of the server room. First, some of the 10-year old equipment wasn’t fast enough to keep up with the speed of our internet connections. Imagine having a large pipe feeding water into your house, then contracting that water flow through a drinking straw before connecting it to your bathtub. You might have a huge pipe coming into your house and a nice wide faucet in the tub, but that straw-sized piping in between means that it will still take quite a while to fill the tub. We aimed to replace and remove outdated equipment to cut down our power consumption while increasing network performance.
Second, this was our chance to bring some order to the placement of equipment and the wiring connecting it all together. No one sets out with the goal of operating a tangled server room, but as equipment and connections are added and removed over the years, a once-tidy arrangement of wires, servers, switches, and ports can easily become a tangled mess. Tangled wiring leads to a host of secondary problems: impeded airflow (computers hate heat), dust and dirt collection (computers hate dust), and complexity (making it harder to troubleshoot problems).
Though it was tempting, we couldn’t just dash into the room and unplug every cord in sight. First, we needed some idea of what equipment we had to buy, what we would be removing from the server room, and how we could arrange everything in the end. Scott, one of the savviest deal-hunters you’ll ever meet, scoured the internet for deals on switches and firewalls that could increase the size of those straw-sized pipes. Mani spent weeks researching strategies and best practices for wiring network switches. We all started turning critical eyes on every piece of networking gear, asking: “Are you worth the space you’re occupying and the power you’re consuming? Will you stay or will you go now?”
Another important part of the planning was minimizing the impact of our work on the rest of TSS. A reconfiguration of this scale would bring down email, phone service, internet access, and most other communications for everyone in the organization. When could we do all this work and have the smallest effect on the TSS mission? After polling different departments, we settled on a Saturday night in July.
On that July Saturday, everyone on the team was in the office before the designated Great Five O’Clock Shutdown, because we had a lot of organizational work to do. Inactive servers and switches were unplugged, unbolted, and removed from the server room. Two hundred new cables were unwrapped. New power supplies were installed, while outdated and inactive battery backups (which are heavy!) were dismantled and removed. All in all, we removed one firewall, one outdated phone system, three battery backups, five network switches, five servers, and over 100 cables. We also installed two new network switches and a new firewall.
At five on the dot, the unplugging began. I teach workshops on graphic design to our interns, and I often reinforce that it’s much easier to create a resume, lesson plan, or poster if you’ve created a sketch of what the final product will look like. I’d say we had a rough sketch of our final layout for the room, but we were also guided along the way by some basic principles. Minimize the number of long cable runs. Minimize the distance between large connection points. Create a linear path for the network. We worked steadily from top to bottom, right to left, and the wiring came together quickly. After about an hour and a half, we had restored internet access, and Scott was testing various services. By nine PM, every server had been rebooted, and we were sweeping the floor.
After everything was plugged back in, we had to run tests to make sure it all worked. Can we make and receive phone calls? Can we send and receive emails? Are wireless access points working across all of our campuses? After such a big realignment of such a complex system, we had some unplanned hiccups. When you move to a new house, no matter how diligent you are about sending change-of-address forms, some of your mail keeps getting delivered to your old address. Several network switches didn’t get the ‘change of address’ notice for the new firewall and weren’t routing traffic to it. Chromebooks also had trouble connecting to the reconfigured network at first. The following Monday was a long and busy day, no question. But, in the process, we came up with some new tests we’ll run the next time we make a major change to the network.
The Design Cycle at Teton Science Schools
The rapid pace of technology now almost guarantees that much of the software and many of the tools we use today will be obsolete by the time our students enter the workforce. As a personal example, I’ve spent a chunk much of my professional career working with Geographic Information Systems (GIS) software, a technology that was in its infancy during my high school and college years. Design Thinking is a transferrable skill that transcends the tools we use to implement it. Though we teach the Design Cycle to our students and staff, it was gratifying to see the framework prove effective when focused on a large, complex problem in the real world.