Experts: Schools Overspent on IT 

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A contractor involved in moving Richmond Schools' information technology department is defending the design and construction of the new room, telling the School Board that it got what it paid for.

The school system moved its IT department in July to keep sensitive computer systems safe from an anticipated eviction from City Hall. Mayor L. Douglas Wilder's now-infamous Sept. 21 move, which a judge foiled with an emergency injunction, cost the city in excess of $500,000. That's still less than the $700,000-plus that school officials spent to move the computer room out of City Hall.

The new room at the Richmond Technical Center is little more than a leaky, $300,000 air-conditioned closet, according to local experts. The 500-square-foot space flooded after a violent rainstorm earlier this fall.

IT experts say moving to a commercially hosted data center would have cost less than $45,000 and renting the space would have taken as little as $5,000 a year. City Auditor Umesh Dalal has repeatedly suggested consolidating the IT departments of the school system and the city, potentially saving $500,000 a year.

"I doubt you could find a single consultant to come in and say that this is a good strategy," says Mark Wensell, vice president and general manager of Peak 10, which operates an aircraft hangar-sized data center management facility off Parham Road in Henrico County. The company provides data center hosting for hundreds of clients who need secure environments, including financial institutions, government agencies and pharmaceutical companies.

In a Nov. 28 letter to the School Board, Worley Associates Architects refuted a Nov. 21 Style Weekly report on the cost of building the room. The company also denies that the room violates building codes. The letter further explains the reasoning behind using residential-grade heat pumps, which an expert questioned in the Style investigation.

"The heat pumps for the Server Room are 5 and 4 tons. Not the 2 ton units as quoted," the letter reads. "Budget restrictions prevented the use of much more expensive and more elaborate Liebert units often used in computer rooms. Heat pumps are designed to run 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. (Even residential units)."

Various local experts contacted by Style, however, say the units are inadequate. While residential heat pumps are capable of cooling the room, they aren't capable of continuously providing cold air needed to cool computer equipment for more than a few years, the experts say.

Style's calls to Worley Associates were not returned.

After viewing the blueprints of the school system's data center, Wensell says that consolidation with city operations, or contracting a host company like his, would have saved hundreds of thousands of dollars. Paying for a small, expensive and underbuilt facility like the new IT facility, he says, "should have been a last option -- not the first."

Scott Rodgers, general manager at NET Telcos, another area data-center provider, agrees. Rodgers estimates a cost of about $3,000 a month to host the school system's equipment. Setup costs would have been "nominal," in the range of $2,000, he says. Over 15 years, the cost to host the RPS servers in a dedicated data-center facility would cost less than $600,000.

A third IT expert, whose company builds data rooms, says he stands by his anonymous Nov. 21 comments to Style that the blueprints show a room that does not meet code requirements for construction of a data center. He was less supportive of moving IT functions to an outside vendor.

City Auditor Dalal also remains critical of the IT move. "The money that they spent is wasted money," he says. "Those servers can go right in our [IT department at City Hall] here, and they could maintain the whole network from there. I mean there was no point, to the extent that they did not invest time in analyzing the best option for RPS." S

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