I attended the Future of HE conference today and chaired a discussion session on sharing data centres and storage. I’ll try and give some overall reflections on the conference later but first some highlights of what was a wide ranging discussion on sharing data centres.
There are various reasons for wanting to move your data centre off campus. Space is an issue in many institutions – as the number of services the IT department provides increases so do the number of servers and, although virtualisation has reduced the impact of this, there is still an increase. Each additional system increases the amount of cooling required and places greater demands on uninterruptable power supplies (UPSs) and an overall increase in power consumption. The availability and quality of the power supply is a big problem in some cities (particularly London) where the supply is often so poor that expensive generators are a necessity to provide an often needed emergency supply.
So with the exception of those institutions that have recently built or refurbished facilities to a higher specification, there is much to be gained by moving the data away from the institution. The spaces that many data centres occupy in universities and colleges were never designed for modern equipment and so are no longer fit for purpose. So there is an opportunity to improve the data centre environment with more appropriate design and cooling systems. A more modern data centre will be environmentally monitored and will have safeguards against fire, flood and power disruption. And there are plenty of commercial players in the market, along with organisations such as Eduserv, who could provide such a facility. So do we need shared data centres at all? Is an alternative to produce a standard specification of a data centre for the sector and then procure space?
There are some institutions that have moved their data centres to commercial providers but do our requirements fit the commercial sector easily? Network connectivity is a big challenge. The sector has a quality network in JANET and commercial connections of equivalent speed are expensive. During my time at City University the data centre was moved to a commercial provider but there was an additional requirement to provide two network connections, separately routed, from the facility back to the institution in order to provide resilience. We were fortunate that our provider was literally just across the road – for others this may present a real barrier. However, the procurement model could work well in this environment if there were a significant number of institutions’ looking for data centre space. In this instance, a number of larger facilities could be procured and it would make sense to connect the facilities directly to the JANET network. But it needs a number of institutions to be in a position to move at the same time.
Are there shared services opportunities? The universities in the Yorkshire and Humberside region have delivered a shared virtual data centre by making use of spare capacity in their institutions’ data centres but it is unlikely that that approach will scale beyond a region. Any new facility will require a significant investment but there are few institutions that have the capital funds available to build a centre that can be potentially shared by others. Whether one will have the courage to take the risk and do just that remains to be seen but it seems unlikely in the current economic climate. But there are data centres being built and in at least one case, two in different institutions in the same city. This is clearly a lost opportunity. Given the lack of willingness to share the Funding Council should seek to make a strategy to share facilities a mandatory condition of receiving funding. There is an alternative in that a trusted partner such as JANET or Eduserv could be funded to build a facility on the expectation that institutions would want to move in but it isn’t clear that the investment is likely to be forthcoming.
There was no single clear message. It was acknowledged that a blend of approaches will be adopted by the sector. Some will share existing facilities in their own region or with institutions that have a similar mission. Some will share with other public bodies in their own region (although this was not a topic touched on in the discussion). Others will outsource their data centre to a commercial or trusted partner. And another set will continue to keep their operation in house. Over time this may change as institutional data centres require refurbishment or as commercial contracts come to an end. But what is clear is that any move to shared services in the area of data centres is going to be a lengthy process; institutions will only move when they are ready and where there are demonstrable benefits.
PS For those interested in Eduserv’s facility I blogged the visit I made to it late last year