Sharing data centres

I attended a meeting today looking at three options for shared data centre provision. The three initiatives are all sponsored in one form or other by the English Funding Council although the approaches will be equally applicable to the other countries in the UK.

The meeting reviewed each of the projects. One, based within the Yorkshire/Humberside metropolitan network (YHMAN) is based on using existing capacity within the region to provide a virtual data centre. The initial study identified that there is little spare capacity currently but a number of institutions in the region are building new data centres and so there is potential for a range of services. These include exchanges of systems for business continuity purposes and siting production systems remotely. The initial study has had an interesting by product in that the experts in the region in various areas now talk to each other more regularly and more formally leading both to a better exchange of information and potentially other shared services.

The YHMAN study grew out of an initial study carried out jointly by Sheffield Hallam, Salford and Derby into a more traditional data centre provision. The last two are proceeding to develop the proposal so that invitations to tender can be issued. The expectation is that regionally based consortia will look to procure data centre space that may be used by all partners in the consortium with enterprise solutions most likely to be the services placed in the data centre. The centre may be procured from an external service, developed within an institution or an entirely new build. The study is looking at whether there is the commitment within consortia for such a service.

The third project (SHED) was instigated as a result of a number of the Russell Group universities having capacity problems with their data centres. The provision of high performance computing (HPC), critical to many research applications, was central to these problems; at one centre 25% of the space was occupied by HPC equipment. Such equipment also requires greater cooling and different power requirements. The initial thinking was that one or a number of data centres could be procured with institutions renting space within the centres. However, a survey had identified a range of possible solutions ranging from doing nothing and each institution addressing their own issues through central or regional data centres to a fully managed outsourced service. Although the primary focus was HPC other applications could also be considered for inclusion.

There are a number of synergies between the three projects; one of the aims of the meeting was to identify areas of overlap to make sure that the projects learn from each other and are sufficiently distinct to progress separately. VAT is a common issue – the business case for any solution is easier to make if institutions buying the service do not have to pay VAT. A test case is underway to determine whether or not higher education based shared services will have to charge VAT to partners in the holding company. However it is unlikely that a decision will be made this year. The other main issue is governance – there is likely to be no one solution but more likely a range of options applicable to different solutions.

It is encouraging that these projects have all made progress and there seems to be a willingness in the sector to collaborate in this area. Whether the business case can be made or not is not clear at this stage. There is a lack of base data for power consumption of data centres (being generally bundled into the overall estate figures) and it is difficult to quantify carbon savings in financial terms. These, and the two issues noted above, need to be addressed before we will fully know if the projects are viable.

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2 Responses to “Sharing data centres”

  1. Brennig Jones Says:

    I would be interested in your views of shared service centres (along the lines of the models being put in place in the RCUK environment in Swindon). Are, for example, the changes that are being implemented at NERC, EPSRC etc a signpost for future consolidation in the wider .ac.uk community? Or is there a strong argument for keeping the divisions in the academic/support service world?

  2. petertinson Says:

    I don’t see wholesale adoption of the RCUK model for administrative services at the moment. What I think we will get is smaller scale collaboration/sharing of services between institutions in a region or a larger institution providing services for partner institutions or other smaller colleges. But I think this is only likely to occur in areas where institutions are not competing. There have been some success stories – the extended hours IT support service provided initially in the North East has been adopted by a number of institutions across the country.

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