Partnership tackles shared data centre challenges for research

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Attempts to build a shared data centre for the UK’s research and education institutions have been ambitious but unsuccessful – until now. Dan Perry describes a new partnership that aims to overcome the challenges of creating a shared data centre and make it easier for institutions to weigh up the advantages of using the data centre

There are compelling reasons why there have been repeated attempts to establish shared data centres for education despite the inherent difficulties, and over the last couple of years those reasons have got more compelling day by day. Researchers like the idea of a data centre because it can help to make research quicker, easier and cheaper; their institutions are attracted by the prospect of freeing up space on campus, improving service and reducing comparable costs.

Shared facilities offer more benefits that standalone ones. They hold out the prospect of more efficient aggregation and the development of common platforms so that it becomes much easier to work collaboratively, sharing data sets, compute facilities and software, even if research colleagues are on the other side of the world. They also hold out the promise of significant cost and time savings for institutions because the one central procurement has been done at scale, bringing the savings to all tenants.

These are clear benefits that universities have consistently said they would value, so we are pleased to confirm that we are launching Jisc’s shared data centre this month.

Janet, the UK’s national research and education network, has signed a five-year agreement with specialist data centre provider Infinity to create the new shared data centre, which will be operated from Infinity’s facility in Slough, with funding from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE).

At launch, it is already the data hub for six major research bodies – The Francis Crick Institute, King’s College London, London School of Economics and Political Science, Queen Mary University of London, The Sanger Institute, and University College London. It also has the capacity to add new national and international customers and scale up rapidly to meet current and future storage and processing requirements.

Connectivity costs are low because it is linked to the Janet network core, which UK institutions are already connected to and it can meet the high bandwidth requirements of researchers working with large datasets. The data centre has more than 800 racks of capacity to support faster processing and transfer of data. This is scalable to 3,000 racks, which should be enough to underpin education as well as research for years into the future. The data centre is already helping to foster national and international collaborations and, more prosaically, it will also support institutions if they have plans to migrate towards more use of cloud services.

Getting the data centre ready to launch has been about more than just the technological challenges. Academic institutions have been hampered in the past when they want to work with third-party suppliers because of a punitive tax regime that adds Value Added Tax (VAT) to the cost of the energy they use with that supplier. We have developed accounting procedures that remove that ‘power penalty’ so that now, if institutions see a clear strategic benefit in working with the shared data centre, there are fewer financial disincentives to doing so.

Another challenge is that, for data centres in universities, many costs are hidden due to different budgets. We’ve developed a financial ‘X-ray service’ that helps institutions assign accurate costs to IT Services. This is helping organisations to inform important structural change decisions such as moving to the cloud and buying into the shared data centre, so that it is easier for them to evaluate the benefits they can achieve and align budgets effectively if they decide that the change will help them achieve their operational strategies.

Dan Perry is director of product & marketing for Janet