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May 25, 2011

Virtualisation and the cloud - the Eduserv Symposium 2011, a brief review

"I know what you're thinking... but don't worry, this is a talk on cloud computing and being lost is normal".

So started the Eduserv Symposium 2011 two weeks ago, with an opening keynote by Simon Wardley (Leading Edge Forum) that was anything but confusing. In fact, I heard several people comment after his talk that it was the best overview of cloud computing that they'd seen and that they couldn't wait for the video to be made available (below) so that they could show it to their senior management team as a way of highlighting the business and technological changes that are driving, and being driven by, the cloud.

Simon's opening talk was followed by a series of talks - Chris Cobb (Roehampton University), Kenji Takeda (University of Southampton), Phil Richards (Loughborough University) and Terry Harmer (Belfast e-Science Centre) - which provided an institutional perspective, both strategic and practical, on the ways in which shared services, virtualisation and the cloud might impact on administrative and research computing in UK universities and colleges.

And, in the middle of these, there were a short series of lightning (10 minute) talks by Rachel Bruce (JISC), Kevin Ashley (DCC), Dan Perry (JANET (UK)) and Matt Johnson (Eduserv) covering some aspects of what the JISC UMF Programme hopes to achieve over the next 12 months or so.

Rounding off the day was a great closing keynote by Armando Fox (UC Berkeley) (below), providing a US academic perspective that looked in some detail at the thinking around 'cloud' being done within the department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at UC Berkeley.

All the videos and presentation slides from the day are now available online.

The day was a significant challenge to put together. We wanted something that would try and cover the breadth of activity happening in the cloud space currently, particularly as it relates to the UK education community. We wanted something that would introduce people to what is likely to be happening over the next 12 months or so as part of the UMF Programme. And we wanted something that would challenge our thinking (both 'our' as in the education community and 'our' as in Eduserv) around the development and use of the cloud. Did we succeed? Yes, I think so... and, overall, I'm very happy with the way the day panned out. I'm particularly grateful to all our speakers.

The talks threw down some pretty significant challenges for those of us, like Eduserv, who are interested in building cloud services targeted at the education sector. I went in to the day with a question: is the education community a consumer of infrastructural services in the cloud or can it also be a sustainable provider? (By 'sustainable' I mean something other than 'funded centrally by public money'). Do I now know the answer? No. But I am significantly more aware of the challenges and issues that lie behind that question. This is something that I will return to in a future post.

In lieu of that deeper discussion, I have three rather more superficial take-home messages from the day. Firstly, that adopting the cloud (i.e. moving to commodity computing) is at least as much about changes to management structure, market competition and disruption as it is about technology (though I must admit that I don't quite understand how this might play out in, say, higher education). Secondly, that the adoption of cloud infrastructure should not be seen primarily as a way of saving money. Rather it is a way of enabling innovation and allowing things to be done that were not possible before. And thirdly, that the sustainability issues (for educational cloud providers) are at least as much about the ability to keep up with a rapidly changing and highly innovative environment as they are about price.

For us, the next 12 months look really interesting. As part of the UMF Programme we are receiving funding to build some pilot infrastructure for use by HE (some of which will be true 'cloud' infrastructure). This initial funding has, to a certain extent, reduced the risks for us in getting invloved in this space but we'll still have to work very hard to create a sustainable service in the longer term. Whatever else the UMF Programme achieves over the next 12 months or so, what I hope our involvement can do is to help build a better understanding of some of the issues and challenges laid out at the symposium.

As to my, as yet, unanswered question about whether an organisation like Eduserv can be a sustainable provider of cloud infrastructure... ask me again in 12 months :-)

May 11, 2011

LOCAH releases Linked Archives Hub dataset

The LOCAH project, one of the two JISC-funded projects to which I've been contributing, this week announced the availability of an initial batch of data derived from a small subset of the Archives Hub EAD data as linked data. The homepage for what we have called the "Linked Archives Hub" dataset is http://data.archiveshub.ac.uk/

The project manager, Adrian Stevenson of UKOLN, provides an overview of the dataset, and yesterday I published a post which provides a few example SPARQL queries.

I'm very pleased we've got this data "out there": it feels as if we've been at the point of it being "nearly ready" for a few weeks now, but a combination of ironing out various technical wrinkles (I really must remember to look at pages in Internet Explorer now and again) and short working weeks/public holidays held things up a little. It is very much a "first draft": we have additional work planned on making more links with other resources, and there are various things which could be improved (and it seems to be one of those universal laws that as soon as you open something up, you spot more glitches...). But I hope it's enough to demonstrate the approach we are taking to the data, and to provide a small testbed that people can poke at and experiment with.

(If you have any specific comments on content of the LOCAH dataset, it's probably better to post them over on the LOCAH blog where other members of the project team can see and respond to them).

Symposium rush

We're in the final stages of preparing for our 2011 symposium, Virtualisation and the Cloud: Realising the benefits of shared infrastructure, which takes place in London tomorrow so things are a bit hectic as you might expect.  If you are not registered, there's a live video stream, as per usual, once again provided by Switch New Media. (Note: worldwide timings for the video stream are available).

In preparing some notes for my introduction to the day, I've been thinking about what makes this year's symposium feel rather different to those in previous year's, and it does feel different (at least to me). I think there are two factors. Firstly, the changing environment within which HE in the UK finds itself having to operate (see Christine Sexton's notes from today's HE Futures Forum for a lengthier explanation of that but none of this will come as a surprise to anyone who hasn't been under a rock for the last year or so) and secondly that we (Eduserv) now find ourselves increasingly drawn to providing 'cloud' solutions as part of our service portfolio. This includes the HE Cloud pilot that we'll be providing as part of the JISC's UMF Programme (and about which you'll hear more tomorrow) but is certainly not limited to the education space. Developing cloud offerings is fairly high-risk stuff for us, not least in the sense that it will change the way we deliver and run our own infrastructure, but also because the business models that might sustain this kind of activity are unclear, at best, in the education space currently.

All of which makes this year's symposium much more relevent to future 'core' business for us than has been the case previously.

We are also wanting to use the symposium as a way of engaging with the community across the range of services we provide. So, although the main focus of the day is cloud and shared services, we've put together a mini-expo in the lunch room where there will be representatives from all parts of Eduserv (Web Hosting and Development, the Data Centre, Licence Negotiation and OpenAthens). If you have any questions for us, or are interested in any of the services we offer, there'll be plenty of people on hand to help you out.

Finally, in light of the potential interest in UMF, we've also asked JANET (UK) and the DCC, both of whom are contributing significantly to the UMF Programme (and both of whom will be giving lightning talks immediately after lunch), to take part in the mini-expo as well.

I'm really looking forward to the event tomorrow. I think we have a great set of talks, including two keynotes (Simon Wardley and Armando Fox) that bring in perspectives from outside UK education. I look forward to seeing you there in person, or at least at the far end of the live-stream.

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