Driving academic progress through cloud tech

To remain academically competitive universities must be digitally advanced, says Mike Kelly

Dr Mike Kelly, CEO and founder of DataCentred, the open-source provider of cloud compute and storage solutions, discusses what the cloud can offer higher education to support their research requirements and drive academic progress and innovation. 

DataCentred works with the Experimental Particle Physics Group at Lancaster University who have been instrumental in establishing the worldwide computing grid for work on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) experiments across various university research group sites. The ATLAS project is the largest experiment currently being conducted at the LHC in CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research. To date it has produced approximately 150 petabytes of data, both real and simulated and the ‘global system routinely has 200,000 jobs running at any one time.

Higher education is facing a crisis: to remain academically competitive universities must be digitally advanced. Yet, with cuts to higher education budgets looming, there is a marked need for cost-effective, efficient IT solutions. In response to this pressure, many universities have abandoned in-house systems in favour of the cloud which provides remotely hosted, scalable, on-demand access to infrastructure, platforms and applications.

The cloud not only facilitates more efficient administration and communication between staff and students, but also provides the responsive, sophisticated systems which enable technological innovation and world class research. A recent survey of IT decision makers within higher education found that 55% cited increased efficiency as a benefit and over a third said the cloud increased innovation.

There are four key areas where cloud computing has had a significant impact on research projects in higher education.

Productivity

The cloud delivers services on demand and this new speed leads to marked increases in productivity. In a market where technological improvements are made almost daily, the cloud grants immediate access to up-to-date tools and platforms which are unlikely to be supported by older in-house facilities. The operation of the platform is managed remotely meaning solutions can be created and deployed quickly, removing the long lead times to infrastructure improvements and incompatibilities between systems and tools which are often seen in house.

Cost savings

The elasticity of cloud is instrumental in keeping IT costs low. In many research projects, data processing requirements can fluctuate almost daily and researchers must find a solution which allows for significant peaks and troughs in workload. For example, data analysis will increase prior to large conferences or presentations. Increased compute capacity is crucial for running extra analysis, but institutions do not want to pay to operate machines which for the most part sit idle. The advantage of the cloud is its “pay as you go” model which makes sure that institutions do not build up capacity which ends up sitting unused.  

Technical expertise

Cloud solutions give higher education access to unprecedented technical expertise. By using the cloud researchers are guaranteed expert support which enables them to focus on their research. This level of technical understanding is particularly useful when it comes to diagnosing problems fast; instead of spending time on bug fixing, technically knowledgeable experts can identify the root cause of the issue and develop a more effective engineering solution.

Collaboration

Developments in open source software have allowed resources to be shared more easily resulting in fast research and innovation. Many cloud providers have entered into partnerships with respected foundations such as LINUX or OpenStack, working together to develop low cost high performance products and services. CERN’s commitment to OpenStack software means that cloud solutions can be seamlessly integrated with the ATLAS project’s own development stack. Research partners including Oxford University and Imperial College London, which also internally deploy OpenStack, are also able to benefit from the same external technical expertise and allow researchers to continue to work with tools they understand and are comfortable using.

Cloud computing has revolutionised higher education by giving researchers the ability to rapidly access and share large data sets, provision massive technical resources and perform intensive compute analyses. With less time and money spent on in-house IT solutions and technology, researchers can dedicate more resource to conducting core research, developing new ground-breaking projects and spurring genuine innovation.

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