A new hybrid cloud solution implemented at Loughborough University mitigates massive cost of data centre rebuild, and connects the University to Logicalis UK's hosted cloud service, the first of its kind connected to JANET (the UK’s education and research network).
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Loughborough University is one of the country’s leading universities, with a reputation for excellence in teaching and research, strong links with business and industry and unrivalled sporting achievement. Loughborough is the UK’s premier university for sport and has perhaps the best integrated sports development environment in the world. It is the Official Preparation Camp Headquarters for Team GB prior to the London 2012 Olympic Games.
Loughborough was faced with a situation common to several universities – its 40-year-old data centre, built with Computer Board money in the 1970s, was at the end of its life and badly in need of replacing.
Dr Phil Richards, Director of IT at Loughborough University, comments, “Our data centre was built and designed 40 years ago. It has served us well, but is showing its age through a poor PUE (Power Utilisation Efficiency) rating and limited capacity. We were open to innovation from the IT sector to bring us the most cost-effective and creative ways to build a more holistic and scalable IT architecture that would grow with us for the long-term."
The university originally thought in terms of simply rebuilding and refurbishing the old data centre: refurbishing space for 40-50 racks of equipment but cooling it in a better, greener manner. To that end it began an EU competitive dialogue tender process, looking for an infrastructure partner that would work with the university on three projects – refreshing the university LAN, providing a VoIP system to replace the existing telephony, and the data centre. “We were able to let suppliers open our eyes to the alternatives to a big refurbishment project,” says Phil.
The supplier selected for the data centre service was Logicalis, chosen for its cooperative cloud offering and because at the time it was in the late stages of connecting to JANET. Thus Loughborough now has a data centre service that is modular, economical, green, and fully resilient at the local level with the option of hosting services remotely at Logicalis’s data centre.
Using the latest and greenest technology has enabled Loughborough to avoid the need for a multi-million pound refurbishment project by building a hybrid cloud – a generic term for a combination of local and remote data centres using cloud technology.
Locally, the new Loughborough data centre is housed in two ‘mini-pods’ – the term used by Phil Richards, Loughborough’s IT Director, for modular containers holding chilled racks with enclosed cooling systems – housed at either end of campus. The mini-pods are modular and easily extendible, and part of the design brief was that the local cloud be completely symmetrical so that any service can run from one half or the other. Hence, one mini-pod can be switched off for servicing and users won’t notice any change in the service they receive. At the same time, the system was to be part of a bigger whole that featured remote data centre capacity.
Phil Richards says that the cooperative cloud removes the distinction between a private remote hosted cloud (for example a university with services running on their racks in a third party’s data centre) and the public cloud (for example Google Mail, where your mailbox lives somewhere on a rack in a massive data centre: a solution that is cheaper because of economies of scale but risky with issues concerning security, data protection and so on). The Logicalis cooperative cloud is the first solution available over JANET that does this, with cloud capacity in rack space that is dynamically reprovisioned: that is, allocated in an optimised way according to need and usage..
Local or remote?
Whether to run a particular service locally or remotely, says Phil, comes down simply to price.
“The cooperative cloud from Logicalis lets you move services from local to remote and back again without buying in more infrastructure. Local capacity should see us through the next 2-3 years at least. Beyond that it comes down to price. The local cloud has an elastic design so if it’s cheaper to run locally, we can buy extra minipods to bolt alongside the existing ones. If by that stage the cloud market has become more efficient so that it’s cheaper to run things externally, we will do that. We might never have to buy another new bit of tin at Loughborough.”
“I can’t predict when it will become cheaper to run entirely off the cloud but I believe it will happen, and as soon as it does, I will be able to look at the pricing options; as long as the quality of service is equivalent I will move the service to run remotely and save the university money. We have the flexibility either to grow local capacity or to go remote, based purely on cost parameters, but in either case we have avoided the need for a multi-million pound building refurbishment project. That’s a good strategy for any university faced with the choice of what to do with a 40-year-old data centre that has had a good innings but is overdue for retirement!”
New for old
A full old-style refurbishment could cost £2-3m in mechanical and electrical work alone before buying a single disc or server. The development of blade servers and virtualisation now means servers can be packed into a much smaller space: each blade can run many logical servers. To meet the current and future needs of the university, Loughborough didn’t need a big building project at all – it just needed half a dozen racks.
A wide variety of people from around campus were involved in the competitive dialogue process, says Phil: not just members of IT services but also IT staff based in academic departments, 3-4 senior members and heads of departments, and the Chief Operating Officer all came to the dialogue sessions.
“If we had just gone to the IT committee with a proposal not to refurbish but to buy two minipods and put services up on the cloud, it would have been seen as risky and wouldn’t have worked. However, competitive dialogue, and a wide audience within the university, has built shared understanding about why this was a better way forward. This helped us get buy-in for the strategy from all levels, right around the university.”
Phil’s advice to universities facing the same situation as Loughborough is to ask: “given advances in miniaturisation and virtualisation, do you really need all that rack space on campus? Think from the outset how you can combine local capacity with options to go to the cloud as part of your design concept. Even if you don’t place a single service remotely in the first three years, there will come a time when it’s cheaper to go remote and you will know how you’re going to do it. If you’re worried about buy-in, consider competitive dialogue. It takes longer and is harder work but it has clear benefits.”