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Work in progress: How Jisc’s shared datacentre vision is shaking up the education sector

Computer Weekly gets a progress report from the Jisc shared services datacentre team in Slough about how the education sector is making use of the site

The benefits of adopting a shared IT services model is gaining traction in the public sector, as CIOs look to save money by pooling their infrastructure resources with other local authorities, NHS trusts or polices forces.

The education sector has also emerged as a keen adopter of the concept, buoyed by the opening of Jisc’s first shared services datacentre at Infinity SDC’s site in Slough in September 2014.

Jisc is responsible for operating the network that supplies the site, as well as the single supplier framework that organisations in the higher and further education community can use to commission and specify how much space they want to take up.

The datacentre garnered support from six universities and research organisations at launch, but a lot has changed since then, including a change in ownership – with Virtus Data Centres taking over the reins from Infinity in November 2015 – and the arrival of a dozen or so more tenants.

“The strategy and ambition from Jisc’s perspective was: if we had the original six and two additional tenants signed up within the first 18 months, it would have proven to be a success,” said Kelly Scott, education account director at Virtus Data Centres.

“The reality is, we have signed 16 in 18 months, and it varies from the City of Liverpool College in the north all the way down to our most recent signing, Bristol University, in the south.”

By the end of the year, the facility is on course to host the servers of 23 universities and colleges, said Scott.

“Customers can bring their own hardware or purchase new hardware and bring it here, and it allows them to have that off-site datacentre facility either from a disaster recovery perspective, should something go wrong on campus, or – in some instances – this is their primary datacentre,” he added.

The amount of space each tenant takes up varies massively, with the City of Liverpool college occupying two racks, while others have 20 or more at their disposal within its data halls.

Most occupants use the space to house high-performance computing (HPC) and research-related workloads, while others use the site to run their corporate IT systems.

“Initially, we thought most universities would move in their standard enterprise racks of 4-5kW each, but we soon realised it was the high-performance computing workloads – because of the power, cooling and cost considerations – that universities wanted to off-board quickly,” said Scott.

Downsize the datacentre

Some participants have gone down the shared services route as part of a wider datacentre consolidation project, or as a way to centralise the server capacity they may have had dotted around disparate computer rooms on campus.

“If you talk to vice-chancellors and the deans of universities, having a big room full of computers on campus that could be full of classrooms or accommodation that brings in revenue is not cost-effective,” said Scott.

According to Paul Jennings, head of ICT operations at Imperial College, London, this was one of the major drivers behind his organisation’s decision to move its corporate IT workloads into the shared services datacentre.

This has paved the way for the college to close one of its on-site datacentres with a view to running all corporate and research IT infrastructure either in the cloud or within the walls of the Slough facility, in time.

“Our two datacentres were both on the same campus, sharing certain IT elements, which meant they weren’t very resilient,” said Jennings. “If you had a problem with one, you’d have a problem with the other. Students want availability of their systems and applications, and on some occasions that wasn’t always possible.”

While the email and lecture capture elements of Imperial College’s corporate IT system have been shifted off-premise to the cloud, its HR and finance applications are – for the time being – better suited to the colocation model, said Jennings.

So, too, are its HPC workloads, which the university is set to begin moving to Slough as part of a year-long, planned migration, which kicks off in earnest in September 2016.

“We have a five-year, £10m investment in HPC, and we need a secure environment and a resilient environment to run it,” said Jennings.

“It’s an aggressive 12-month plan because, within three years, we do not want to be running our own datacentres.”

Sharing is caring

Thanks to the economies of scale of the share services approach, the more institutions that use the facility, the lower the cost of using it becomes for everyone else already there, said Scott.

“Power and real estate costs in central London, for example, are expensive,” he said. “Commercially, the way the framework operates, it benefits everybody. As we get in more university customers, there is a reduction in cost over time for the pounds per kW per month.”

Before the Jisc share service framework was put forward, the original six tenants had mooted the idea of building their own datacentre independently.

One of the big challenges they faced was trying to predict how their infrastructure and network capacity requirements were likely to change over time, and how they would respond to that in years to come.

By enlisting the help of Jisc, which brokered the original colocation deal with Infinity SDC, the universities were effectively absolved from taking responsibility for their own capacity planning needs, said Scott.  

“The tenants move in on day on and have the ability to scale up over time and don’t need to worry about needing to find additional capacity and power,” he said.

“Similarly, if there is a fire or flood or the UPS doesn’t start, the university IT team would get called out to deal with that, but keeping the lights on is now our responsibility.”

Barriers to adoption

While all this might sound like a decent argument for further and higher education institutions to get involved with the venture, some university IT directors and research departments still have a hard time parting with their on-premise hardware, said Jisc datacentre manager Guy Sudron.

“It is a huge strategic change for an organisation to look at its datacentre strategy and move its infrastructure off-site,” he said.

“It is often a difficult, and a long-term process, and we have been talking to some universities on this for about a year and they are still yet to make that firm decision about what they are going to do.”

The biggest barrier, in some cases, is getting the IT department used to the idea of its servers not being within walking distance, said Scott.

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“It can be an emotional thing, as most IT teams are used to going down the road or down the corridor and turning things on, and then you get the ‘server huggers’ of the world who like the fact that the hardware is under their desk.”

There is also a distinct north-south divide between the universities willing to outsource the contents of their server rooms to the shared services datacentre, and those that would rather keep it on campus, said Scott.

“The northern universities need to be comfortable that – although it’s 150 miles away – it’s still going to work, and latency is the one question that comes to the forefront all the time,” he added.

“We have Liverpool City College, who experience no problems whatsoever, but – again – and for others it’s the emotional side of things coming into play again. They feel comfortable with their IT on the other side of the road, but not all the way down in Slough.”

With hundreds of universities, colleges and research institutions across the UK still to win over, Sudron says the facility is ready and waiting for when they decide the time is right to downsize their datacentre footprint.

“What Jisc wanted to do with this framework in the first place was to give universities and research organisations a choice and versatility,” he said.

“We are not mandating that they use this datacentre. It’s an option for however it fits into that particular university’s strategy. And, so far, we’ve not found an instance where it doesn’t fit in [with their strategy] in some way.”

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