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February 22, 2011

UCISA cloud computing event

I attended UCISA's Cloud Computing Seminar last week, a pretty good event overall though, like many 'cloud' events, there was quite a mix of IaaS (e.g. Amazon Web Services (AWS)) and SaaS (e.g. Google Apps) presentations so it sometimes felt like the programme was jumping around a bit. There is no doubt that the 'cloud' is generating a lot of interest at the moment, which is gratifying since it is also the topic of our annual Eduserv Symposium this year (May 12th in London).

Phil Richards, of Loughborough, talked about their partnership with Logicalis, building what he called a 'hybrid cloud' comprising both an on-campus virtualisation infrastructure and some in-the-cloud burst capacity (based on Logicalis' Cooperative Cloud Service). He seemed to make the point that research and teaching, being two of the key differentiators between universities, are inappropriate for outsourcing to the cloud. Well, yes, I tend to agree - but that doesn't mean that the compute infrastructure on which those things are built can't be outsourced? With the exception of some very specialised cases, I doubt that many people choose their place of research or learning based on the size of its data centre?

And, as David Wallom of OeRC pointed out in his talk about the FleSSR project, outsourcing to cloud infrastructure is already happening, albeit in a rather ad hoc and bottom-up way. He suggested that most institutions (certainly research intensive institutions) will probably have around 200-300 researchers that are already using AWS (or equivalent) for some aspects of their research. So, for at least some researchers, the decision to use cloud infrastructure has already been taken, often on the back of a personal credit card! The problem for universities is that it is happening in an unmanaged (and in some senses unmanagable) way.

Given the announcement of UMF funding a couple of weeks ago, which includes a pilot "virtual server infrastructure (a 'cloud')" hosted by us, and given our involvement in the FleSSR project, we now fall rather squarely into the camp of those people thinking about building shared 'cloud' infrastructure services for the education sector. Understanding both the needs of those individual researchers who are currently choosing to go to Amazon and those of university IT Services who likely have more strategic 'virtualisation' issues in mind brings, I suspect, some interesting tensions, not least around business models (which was the topic of Matt Johnson's talk), pricing models and, ultimately, sustainability.

Interestingly, JANET's new role as a broker for the "procurement of shared virtual servers and data centre capacity" (as part of the UMF funding announcement) got positive support on a couple of occassions during the day, with the speakers from UCD saying that they'd like to see a similar service being set up in Ireland.

So-called 'cloud bursting' was also refered to several times during the day as being an attractive option. This approach, like that adopted by Loughborough, retains virtualisation/compute and storage capacity in-house but uses the cloud to meet demand when it exceeds local capacity ('bursting'). This is also the architectural approach being investigated by the FleSSR project. What is not clear to me, when we view the UK HE community as a whole, is the extent to which this kind of approach is able to achieve such significant overall cost savings when compared to a more whole-hearted 'push everything out to a shared cloud provider' model, nor the ease with which such cloud-bursting services can become sustainable.

From our perspective, the issues around business models, costing and sustainability are taxing our minds at least as much as the nuts and bolts of building the infrastructure as we consider the future of both FleSSR and our UMF pilot. More anon...


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