IG16 Conference review

By Simon Williams, Head of Platforms and Storage, Cardiff University

The IG16 Conference entitled Software Defined. So what? was held on 28 and 29 September at The Queens Hotel in Leeds, featuring a diverse programme, including speakers from the HE community and solution suppliers, breakout sessions and an interactive Infrastructure Question Time.

David Telford, UCISA Chair, welcomed Conference delegates on behalf of UCISA and put the theme of the Conference in the context of the rapid pace of change in the sector and the uncertainty following the Brexit vote.

The keynote speaker, Scott MacLellan, Research Director at Gartner UK walked delegates through the hype surrounding SDx, positioning it as an evolution of the abstraction introduced in server virtualisation making infrastructure presentation independent of physical hardware, and potentially making the whole data centre a software-driven entity. The benefits are clear – rapid automated provisioning and more predictable costs – but solutions are still relatively immature. Scott presented the results of a survey of the uptake of SDN, SDS and hyper-converged solutions and discussed potential approaches. He concluded with a warning that hardware lock-in would be replaced with software lock-in unless vendors define and adopt standards.

The Conference then split into breakout sessions with talks from Loughborough (on the experience of their recent storage procurement), Edinburgh (on the success of a homegrown SDS solution for the research community) and Jisc (on the SD architecture its developing to support new national services in the cloud).

After lunch in the exhibition hall, Arthur Clune gave an account of work at York to extend automated delivery of VMs with VMware NSX. 

He outlined the major successes – improved security because of micro-segmentation but also the challenges, particularly the difficulty of rationalising the University’s existing network. He described the team’s progress towards self-service provisioning.

The first two supplier showcases followed. David Cottee from Oracle described approaches to moving services to the cloud, advocating moving higher up the stack (eg PaaS rather than IaaS) for better security and consistency and reduced costs. Colin Swift from Brocade gave some practical applications of SDN, including an example in which software can detect and resolve problems by using workflow to stitch together existing silos of automation.

The final session of the afternoon saw the return of the Infrastructure Question Time, a format shamelessly pinched from the BBC with IG’s very own Adrian Ellison in the Dimbleby role and a panel of experts answering questions from delegates and from the webcast audience via Twitter. The debate was wide-ranging, lively and engaging and it made for a thoroughly enjoyable final session.

We were treated to a drinks reception in the Exhibition hall in the evening, followed by an outstanding conference dinner. Delegates availed themselves of the opportunity to network to the full!

The second day kicked-off with a few sore heads and a presentation from Softcat/VMWare working with the University of Central Lancashire to deliver the software-defined University. The presentation described some of the changes affecting the University’s business and how the use of VMware NSX addresses security challenges and paves the way to increased use of the public cloud.

In the first of two sessions on the transformational IT programme at the University of Wolverhampton, Nici Cooper described the University’s Applications Anywhere project to virtualise application delivery.

Adrian Davies gave an account of the recent deployment of hyper-converged Nutanix appliances in Stockport Borough Council to meet the challenges of delivering services in the face of reduced cost and the loss of specialist IT staff. Adrian was followed by Neil Thurston from Logicalis who outlined some of the challenges of delivering a hybrid IT service consisting of both internal and external IT and the advantages of working with a systems integrator to build effective hybrid IT which integrates with both internal IT and the public cloud. Neil emphasised the importance of planning, technology is the easy bit.

In the afternoon, Adrian Ellison and Joanna Radley gave delegates a brief overview of UCISA and the Infrastructure Group and encouraged volunteers to participate in the Group’s work.

The second of the presentations from Wolverhampton described a major project to modernise the University’s infrastructure, working with Logicalis to deliver hyper-convergence and a hybrid cloud. 

The closing keynote was given by Dave Coplin, a thought-provoking speaker and consummate performer who rejoices in the title of ‘Chief Envisioning Officer’ at Microsoft. His talk The rise of humans: empowering the future of work introduced the audience to the third computer age which he expects to be dominated by machines that learn, and make intelligent decisions based on context. Using examples ranging from an iPotty(!), to algorithms for making tea, to ordering pizza delivery to a moving train, he argued that normal people’s expectations of technology are changing and pushing the boundaries of what can be done. He urged universities to encourage critical thinking and be creative. 

It is possible to make something out of nothing with software!

Dave Thornley, the IG Chair closed the Conference, reflecting on what was undoubtedly a very successful event which is now firmly established in the conference calendar. Conference presentations and the webcasts are available from the 

UCISA website and commentary and discussion on the Conference can be found using the hastag #igconf16 on Twitter. 

W: www.ucisa.ac.uk

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