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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 :-)

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