New Data Center, Online Classes Put Omaha College on IT Fast Track
May 26, 2009 Dan Burger
Metropolitan Community College serves the greater Omaha, Nebraska, area, but through an online educational program its reach is worldwide. Currently MCC is reinventing its General Information Technology curriculum–which includes specialized course work relating to the IBM Power Systems i platform–and building a technologically advanced data center that will substantially boost career preparation opportunities for a global student body. The innovative methods could well be the future of IT education.
In September, when a new two-year educational track called Data Center Management begins, MCC will have a program curriculum based on real world working conditions in a modern data center that includes heterogeneous systems from numerous IT hardware and software vendors. IBM is one of them, and at the core of the system will be an i platform. More specifically, the big servers on campus will be BladeCenter servers–a JS12 and a JS22.
“We will be doing redundancy between the two blade servers,” says Ted Tucker, an instructor at the college. “The data center will be a classroom, but it will also support all of the school’s programs. We will have our own UPS systems and a backup generator. We will be doing virtualization using VMware and PowerVM, and the students will see what it takes to monitor a data center including the power, the air conditioning, and the entire system.”
The blade servers will replace a System i 525.
“We consider this a prototype program,” Tucker says. “When we were first approached about doing this project last June, we began searching and couldn’t find anything else designed like this. We found a few graduate courses on the East Coast, but not a complete program with a data center like the one our students will be in.”
MCC received a three-year $1.8 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor with the goal of increasing the number of students in IT education. Building and developing the data center and the management is part of the grant.
Degrees in computer science and IT education in general has been on a downward slide for years and only recently have some studies noted that the career choice is rising in popularity once again. The timing of that rise in enthusiasm may coincide nicely with the plans at MCC. And another trend, this one tied to geography, may also work to the advantage of the college.
There is a growing trend in data centers being located in the Midwest, according to Tucker. The land and the electrical power are less expensive, and unemployment in Nebraska is lower than the nationwide unemployment average.
“Google is building across the Missouri River in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Yahoo is building on the south side of Omaha. Microsoft is building in West Des Moines, Iowa, which is about 125 miles from here,” Tucker notes. “And there are already some big data centers in town. The state of Nebraska is really promoting itself as a home for data centers. The predictions are for more to relocate here.”
The concern of not having a workforce with data center skills is why MCC was approached to begin this program.
Tucker, the lead instructor on the Power Systems i portion of the curriculum and an influence on the data center design, has worked with local AS/400 shops to align students and skills with the job market.
“The companies we’ve talked to about the program have all been excited and helpful in designing the data center,” he says. “These are companies that could hire graduates.”
They are also companies that look to MCC to provide corporate training programs for existing personnel.
Tucker readily admits that enrollment in IT classes at MCC had slowed considerably during the past several years and that it few students have been involved in iSeries-specific education. Although the school has had a satisfactory relationship with IBM ever since the early days of the AS/400, the awareness level of that platform was practically absent from students’ perceptions of modern IT. At just about the same time that Tucker began looking for ways to rejuvenate the IT program, he found an ally in Linda Grigoleit, who leads the IBM Academic Initiative program for the Power Systems division.
Working with the Academic Initiative as well as AS/400 shops in the Omaha area has helped Tucker develop an accelerated one-year program for students targeting i platform skills and eventually jobs in an area that is close to home. The goal of this program, Tucker says, is have a program that puts 20 students interested in iSeries into the job market each year.
Based on conversations he has had with AS/400 shops in his area, employers remain concerned about a shortage of programmers. “We hope to pull other iSeries shops into this and develop a pipeline of students to readily available jobs,” Tucker says.
Shelli Peck, the marketing manager at the database software company ProData, is a former student at MCC.
“Metro’s degree got me my first programming job,” Peck says. She later became a software development manager and eventually moved to the marketing manager job at ProData. Over the years, she’s worked with MCC to place graduates in programming positions and has been involved with sending staff members to Metro classes for skills updating and advancements.
Bob Luebbe, president of Linoma Software, has served as an advisory board member at MCC, sharing technology insights and providing advice on job skill requirements in the workplace. Linoma has also been a corporate sponsor of MCC in its dealings with IBM that involve equipment leasing. Metro was one of 35 schools that made deals with IBM to get AS/400s back in the early 1990s. It has been on a consistent two-year upgrade cycle ever since.
“At MCC, we use our iSeries not only for students enrolled in iSeries-specific classes, but also for our Unix students using a Linux partition on the iSeries,” Tucker says. “All the COBOL students are using COBOL on the iSeries. We also have several Web classes and scripting classes that use the iSeries as well.”
During the current spring quarter at MCC, there are approximately 4,000 students enrolled in IT classes. “Almost every student touches the iSeries in one way or another at some point,” Tucker says. The majority will know the i platform is an integral part of the data center, but relatively few will understand operational details or RPG programming.
The online course capabilities at MCC have been popular and there are expectations that more students will take advantage of them, particularly in conjunction with the new data center management courses, all of which will be offered online. There are certain mechanisms required for offering online classes and a certain method of teaching that is required, but MCC has learned some lessons along the way. Gaining better control over the testing of students was one such hurdle. Tucker says a switch to Angel Learning‘s Learning Management System tools (which allows students to do coursework online without allowing them to cheat) was a positive difference in both testing and delivering course materials.
MCC has students worldwide taking classes and accessing its system.
The steps that MCC has taken to make its IT program more relevant to the modern IT environment began several years ago, when computer science degrees were less popular on campuses than bans on alcohol and music in the dorms after 8 p.m.
It began several years ago with a partitioned System i. To reduce expenses, the college consolidated its IT courses on that single system. That included the Windows, Linux, and Unix courses as well as all the System i-based courses. That accomplishment, along with the efforts to inject new energy into its IT educational efforts, earned Metro a COMMON and IBM Innovation Award, which was presented at the COMMON 2009 Annual Meeting and Expo in Reno, Nevada, last month.
Tucker has been at this for a while, and he’s been instrumental in bringing this together with IBM Power Systems in the middle, but with many other systems playing major roles in a complete IT educational roadmap.
“The new data center at MCC fits into the IBM Dynamic Infrastructure, green computing, and the emphasis on cost savings,” Grigoleit says. “And in the business world, students will find enterprises with an amalgamation of platforms, which is what Ted Tucker is creating at MCC.”
To register for fall classes at Metro, see the school Web site at www.mccneb.edu. The new data center management courses are not yet listed, but Tucker says they’ll be added to the online course catalog in June or July.