In the clouds
So, the Repositories and the Cloud meeting, jointly organised by ourselves and the JISC, takes place on Tuesday next week and I promised to write up my thoughts in advance. Trouble is... I'm not sure I actually have any thoughts :-(
Let's start from the very beginning (it's a very good place to start)...
The general theory behind cloud solutions - in this case we are talking primarily about cloud storage solutions but I guess this applies more generally - is that you outsource parts of your business to someone else because:
- they can do it better than you can,
- they can do it more cheaply than you can,
- they can do it in a more environmentally-friendly way than you can, or
- you simply no longer wish to do it yourself for other reasons.
Seems simple enough and I guess that all of these apply to the issues at hand for the meeting next week, i.e. what use is there for utility cloud storage solutions for the data currently sitting in institutional repositories (and physically stored on disks inside the walls of the institution concerned).
Against that, there are a set of arguments or issues that mitigate against a cloud solution, such as:
- data protection
- loss of local technical knowledge
...you know the arguments. Ultimately institutions are going to end up asking themselves questions like, "how important is this data to us?", "are we willing to hand it over to one or more cloud providers for long term storage?", "can we afford to continue to store this stuff for ourselves?", "what is our exit strategy in the future?", and so on.
Wrapped up in this will be issues about the specialness of the kind of stuff one typically finds in institutional repositories - either because of volume of data (large research data-sets for example), or because stuff is seen as being especially important for various reasons (it's part of the scholarly record for example).
None of which is particularly helpful in terms of where the meeting will take us! I certainly don't expect any actual answers to come out of it, but I am expecting a good set of discussions both about current capabilities (what the current tools are capable of), policy issues, and about where we are likely to go in the future.
One of the significant benefits the current interest in cloud solutions brings is the abstraction of the storage layer from the repository services. Even if I never actually make use of Amazon S3, I might still get significant benefit from the cloud storage mindset because my internal repository 'storage' layer is separated from the rest of the software. That means that I can do things like sharing data across multiple internal stores, sharing data across multiple external stores, or some combination of both, much more easily. It also potentially opens up the market to competing products.
So, I think this space has wider implications than a simple, "should I use cloud storage?" approach might imply.
From an Eduserv point of view, both as a provider of not-for-profit services to the public, health and education sectors and as an organisation with a brand spanking new data centre I don't think there's any secret in the fact that we want to understand whether there is anything useful we can bring to this space - as a provider of cloud storage solutions that are significantly closer to the community than the utility providers are for example. That's not to say that we have such an offer currently - but it is the kind of thing we are interested in thinking about.
I don't particularly buy into the view that the cloud is nothing new. Amazon S3 and its ilk didn't exist 10 years ago and there's a reason for that. As markets and technology have matured new things have become possible. But that, on its own, isn't a reason to play in the cloud space. So, I suppose that the real question for the meeting next week is, "when, if ever, is the right time to move to cloud storage solutions for repository content... and why?" - both from a practical and a policy viewpoint.
I don't know the answers to those questions but I'm looking forward to finding out more about it next week.