IT in Education: Part II – sharing and caring in Slough

Written by Rahiel Nasir, Freelance IT Journalist Published 2016-04-21 09:26:05

In part one, I asked why a report released by the Higher Education Commission (HEC) earlier this year failed to mention how the IT industry could help the UK’s higher education institutions capitalise on their Big Data.

The commission’s 10-month study was co-chaired by Sarah Porter, a former head of innovation at Jisc, the education sector’s not-for-profit organisation for digital service and solutions. Jisc is also responsible for Janet, the UK’s national research and education network.

Sarah told me that among the findings published in the report, greater collaboration was recommended between universities to share expertise and resources. She said: “The IT industry and data centre service providers could facilitate and support this collaboration in the way that we see, for example, with the University of London Computing Centre.”

The ULCC is an IT services provider that was originally set-up in 1968. Aimed at the academic and not-for-profit sector, it offers co-location and managed hosting services, desktop support, managed network services, and more.

But this does not seem to include the type of specialist services offered by your typical data centre such as LONDON4, the UK’s first national shared data centre for research and education organisations that is now run by VIRTUS in Slough.

With the addition of the University of the Arts London, the Institute of Cancer Research and GÉANT earlier this year, LONDON4 now hosts 15 tenants from the research and education sector.

The shared data centre was originally established in 2014 as part of a five-year framework agreement with Jisc. It is also directly connected to the core of the Janet network.

For Jisc, the idea behind the shared resource is to create a single location for a “state-of-the-art” data centre ecosystem that is flexible and agile enough to cater for all eventualities.

One of the issues noted in HEC’s report was the importance of higher education institutions sharing resources to help overcome the costs and fears over vendor ‘lock-in’. So surely part of the solution to HEC’s Big Data dilemma lies in Slough with LONDON4?

Putting the IT back in education

Perhaps the idea of a shared data centre is still so much of a novelty for the education sector that it has yet to appear on the radars of many institutions.

Having said that, public sector organisations have been sharing ICT resources for some time now. So I asked Kelly Scott, Account Director for Jisc at VIRTUS, why the idea of a shared data centre for the education has taken longer to become a reality.

He told me that for around four or five years now, the hosting of a data centre within a university has always been a costly affair, especially when you look at the prices of property, power, cooling, etc.

The idea of a shared data came about around the end of 2013 when six universities started looking at hosting their own facilities, either as an addition to their own campus or offsite, and coming to the conclusion that there must be a better way of doing it.

“They thought surely we can combine our needs and get somebody like Janet or Jisc to broker that opportunity through a due process? The economies of scale that that could offer us as well as other universities would be more beneficial. So that’s what they did.”

The tender for the data centre was won in 2014 by Infinity which set-up the facility at its flagship facility in Slough. It was later acquired by VIRTUS which completed the buyout in December 2015.

Kelly says the facility was originally established for the six anchor tenants that came together in the first instance: The Francis Crick Institute; Kings College London; London School of Economics; Queen Mary University; The Sanger Institute; and University College London.

But since then, other tenants have also come on board: Brunel University; the Higher Education Funding Council for England; Imperial College London; Liverpool City College; and the University of Surrey. Jisc has also taken space in the centre to support its own activities.

Kelly says: “When you talk to universities as well as other public sector bodies and the NHS, they very quickly understand that being in the same facility as another university or research organisation, and sharing data collaboratively across a data hall rather than across a wider area network, the cost benefits vastly outweigh what it would be to build their own data centre.”

So as LONDON4 is starting to become more established and can build upon its offerings, the time may soon be right to go knocking on HEC’s door.

Kelly tells me that there are currently conversations about what else LONDON4 could offer – shared storage and data archiving, for example. “The amount of data that are coming from these particular institutions is huge, and the ability to store or archive that across a WAN is becoming problematic. So having it in a facility where the data are localised means they can archive and access them if they need to quickly, and it just means that it drives down costs over a period of time.”

What’s clear is that the 15 or so academic institutions that are currently being hosted in Slough are now comfortable that an off-site data centre can provide them with what they need.

As a result, Kelly says they are also now more comfortable with looking at other things, such as a hybrid approach of having certain HPC systems still physically hosted on infrastructure, but then investigating whether they can look at cloud-based services for some of the non-essential everyday business services such as HR, email, etc.

Perhaps LONDON4 could even help the HE sector with its Big Data issues. If only somebody had told HEC.

So perhaps now’s the time to put the IT back into education and tell the HE institutions about how IT experts can play a part in helping them understand and capitalise on their Big Data.