630 servers, one machine: Cloud computing on a mainframe

An upstate New York college sees great economic advantage by running cloud computing on a mainframe.

On one mainframe, Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., runs 630 virtual servers. Some of them are dedicated to computer sciences, some for web sites, and some for client and/or partner organizations. The end users don’t know they are on a mainframe; they think they have their own server.

“The advantage of using a mainframe is tremendous,” said Bill Thirsk, chief information officer at Marist College. “One of the applications that we use for managing the school…requires 10 large servers to run the entire suite of programs. We didn’t buy 10 machines; we simply put it on our mainframe, which pre-existed.”

A mainframe is highly efficient as far as the power, cooling, and floor space needed.

“My data center is only 2,000 square feet,” Thirsk said, “yet I have in total probably 630 servers running in there. It takes your computing room, your heating and cooling, your power requirement, and your processing requirement and puts them into what I call an extremely high-density services model.”

A mainframe that is virtualized into many smaller servers does not need network switches, cables, additional electrical outlets, more UPS capacity, racks, or any other additional equipment, Thirsk said. It’s infinitely scalable, too.

“The price tag is expensive. However, it’s much less than buying server, server, server, server,” Thirsk said. “The return on that asset is considerably higher than doing one server at a time, one switch at a time.”


Marist College developed its own version of the open-source education platform Sakai, which it calls iLearn. Through its cloud, Marist runs iLearn internally and distributes it to partner organizations.

“We started to see that, very much so, we were offering Software as a Service through our instructional technology,” Thirsk said. “We developed it so not only could a student sign up and take courses online, but we could also host [the software] for other [organizations], where we simply create them an instance and provide them access to our mainframe.”

Marist College often helps other schools and colleges teach courses online, do online collaboration, and set up virtualization. “We are very much a hub,” Thirsk said.


Like all clouds, the technology behind Marist’s interface is transparent. Students at Marist College don’t think to themselves, “I’m logging into a cloud” when they use their secure login.

Anything students or faculty would do on a traditional computer, they can do online through the cloud, and usually with much greater convenience, at any time of the day, Thirsk said.

They can register, take a course, look up grades, pay bills, search the library catalog, collaborate online for team projects, go back and forth in asynchronous conversation, post documents and presentations, and access social-networking sites like Facebook.

“They are not [aware] that they are on a cloud, or a cloud configuration,” Thirsk said. “They are [aware] that they log in with their login, and there, through our portal, is everything they are allowed to access.”

Marist College has some low-cost, thin-client devices from DevonIT Inc. installed in its student services office and some research labs. These next-generation thin-client devices don’t have a hard drive; the processing power and software is delivered from the mainframe.

“The user doesn’t know [he’s] not using the desktop. It looks like Windows, it behaves like Windows, but there are no data stored there,” Thirsk said. “It [requires] very, very low power usage, but you get all the functionality, network connectivity, bandwidth, and everything you get from a very large computer. And, they are cheap.”

Extra security

Cloud computing offers an extra layer of security, Thirsk said, because data are not stored on local machines. If someone steals a laptop or computer, the thief will not get any data.

“Where we worry is if someone sticks a thumb drive in it and tries to download data–[but] we have routines to protect that,” Thirsk said.

Marist College has up to 7,000 people within the college using the network. Overall, Marist manages 130,000 eMail accounts; however, not everyone logs in at once.

“The worst thing that could happen is the internet connection could go down through some provider. And that does happen from time to time,” Thirsk said. “If you are a cloud provider or cloud user, and someone’s network goes down or their internet connection gets cut, you are out of business for a while until it comes back up.”

Marist College has two internet connections, one primary and one backup, and it’s also a member of Internet2. During outages, the college implements speed restrictions for traffic going over the different secondary routes. For security purposes, Marist College also monitors its network traffic.

“We worry about natural disasters, of course,” Thirsk said. “What would we do if there is a flood, or an earthquake or tornado, or things like that–and that’s just a [function] of good data-center management and organizational readiness.”

Marist College shares a data center in Syracuse, N.Y., called NYSERNet, with a number of other colleges and nonprofit organizations. It also has one main data center at the college and is building a secondary data center in a new technology building, Thirsk said. The college has three electrical grids on campus, so if one goes down, users can come up on another grid.

Sign up for our K-12 newsletter

Newsletter: Innovations in K12 Education
By submitting your information, you agree to our Terms & Conditions and Privacy Policy.

eSchool News Staff

Want to share a great resource? Let us know at submissions@eschoolmedia.com.

eSchool News uses cookies to improve your experience. Visit our Privacy Policy for more information.