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March 21, 2011

UMF pilot cloud infrastructure - size matters?

It's been a while since the HEFCE announcement about UMF and there was quite a bit of discussion about UMF, virtualisation and the cloud at the recent JISC conference in Liverpool (at least from what I could see on the live video stream). It therefore seems appropriate to mention our role in this activity.

By way of background, the University Modernisation Fund (UMF) is a HEFCE initiative that aims to help universities and colleges in the UK deliver better efficiency and value for money through the development of shared services. Managed by the JISC, the programme has two core elements:

  • investment of up to £10 million in cloud computing, shared IT infrastructure, support to deliver virtual servers, storage and data management applications;
  • investment of up to £2.5 million to establish cloud computing and shared services in central administration functions to support learning, teaching, and research.

As part of our involvement in this activity, Eduserv is building a generalised virtualisation and cloud platform to serve up compute and storage resources as IaaS.  Both compute and storage resources will be offered at different tiers to enable delivery of a wide range of applications. At this stage, we expect the platform to offer the following services (though exact details are still under discussion with both JANET and the JISC):

  • VMware-based virtual machines;
  • physical blade servers;
  • block-level SAN disk storage;
  • file/object-level archive disk storage.

Whilst the platform is designated a pilot service, it will be delivered to production quality standards in order that we both build consumer confidence in service availability and that we are able to understand and mitigate any transitional or operational concerns as quickly as possible during the pilot. The platform will be designed to offer virtualization and cloud infrastructure to any projects funded through the UMF programme (at no cost) and to the wider UK HE community (using pricing and billing models that are still to be determined - Eduserv will be developing pricing and billing models that are both sympathetic to the needs of the academic community and that support a sustainable service in the future - again, in discussion with JANET).

We are in the process of designing this infrastructure in such a way to provide the following tactical benefits to HE institutions and supporting organisations: 

  • a fully-configurable virtualised environment that allows for the configuration of customer-specific infrastructure in segregated environments, offering high levels of security and performance;
  • a resilient network, capable of delivering wire-speed 10 Gigabit Ethernet connectivity from the physical or virtual server through to the JANET backbone, which enables institutions to make use of UMF services as though they were located locally on-premise;
  • a highly-scalable compute infrastructure that can simultaneously accommodate a number of different initiatives, from UMF-funded pilot SaaS services through to institution-specific virtualisation and cloud provisioning;
  • a multi-tier storage architecture providing a range of data services, from raw data processing through to research data management and longer-term storage.

From our perspective, the intention is to investigate and support the following strategic benefits across the HE community:

  • the potential to significantly reduce the amount of time and effort spent by HEIs in developing plans and associated business cases for institutional data centre infrastructure, leading to a reduction in capital expenditure on HEI-specific data centre construction, refit and on-going operations;
  • the provision of a focal point for new shared service development, offering on-demand development and test environments as well as high-quality production infrastructure capable of delivering enterprise-level SLAs;
  • a long-term, sustainable service blueprint that delivers IaaS services at pricing competitive with existing commercial providers, but with the benefit of direct JANET connectivity and HE-suited pricing models;
  • a service platform that offers IPv6 capability, assisting institutions in the transition from the currently depleted IPv4 address space.

During the morning cloud session at the JISC Conference, there were a couple of comments relating to "industrial scale" clouds, the implication being both that the education community can't build such clouds itself and that massive size matters in order to realise sufficient economies of scale to be worthwhile.

As I tweeted at the time, I don't believe that to be the case. Or, rather, I don't know if that is the case - one of the things we need to make sure comes out of the next 12 months or so of activity within UMF is some much better understanding of what the education community is capable of building itself, whether cloud infrastructure services within that community are likely to be sustainable, and what cost savings are likely to be made.

It seems to me that there is a scale that sits somewhere between "a single institution" and "industrial scale" (which I take to mean Amazon, Microsoft, etc.), a scale that the education community is well able to deliver, that is sufficiently far along the scale/cost curve for significant savings to be made.

The further one can move along the scale axis, the better - clearly. As in most things, size matters! But it is also the case that there are diminishing returns here I suspect. It remains to be seen how far educational providers can move along the scale, either individually or in collaboration, and whether the resulting infrastructure can be delivered in an attractive and sustainable way.

If you are interested in this kind of stuff, our annual free Eduserv Symposium (May 12th in London) will be focusing on virtualisation and the cloud in general, and UMF in particular - more on this shortly.


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