Putting research data in the cloud

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David Utting of JISC shares how £12.5 million from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) is being invested to give opportunities to UK researchers to store their data

There is a cultural shift taking place within UK higher education, as IT and finance teams look to make the most out of existing space, and make their contracts work harder. But how does the creation of services off campus in a virtual cloud benefit the researcher who currently carries out their work and stores it locally on their laptop? And why can’t existing free providers cater for researchers’ needs?

Reliable technology is fundamental when managing high volumes of technical datasets. If your laptop is lost or stolen it can cause a great deal of misery - in some cases a lifetime of work is lost. Working in a trusted cloud, which has been specifically set up to accommodate your needs as a researcher, means you will also save time and resources. The aim is to have software that can help you manage your data, store it and work with your colleagues all in one place without switching between systems.

The latest phase of the Universities Modernisation Fund in the UK intends to boost the ability of UK universities to research and work in the cloud. The aim is to provide universities with the advice, guidance and support they need to make the best use of the many opportunities that the cloud has to offer. This may be by working with their existing infrastructures or, as their current contracts need to be renewed, give them access to a range of virtual cloud services, including data management and storage services at discounted prices.

This isn’t as simple as looking for a one-size-fits-all approach for UK higher education using one supplier to manage and host a cloud solution. Over the next year we are setting up a national broker service through JANET(UK), the provider of the UK’s joint academic network, to negotiate between universities and commercial suppliers in the procurement of shared virtual services and data management capacity. This will give universities a range of options to suit their individual needs on terms and conditions tailored to meet the particular demands of the sector. This is not just about using remote data centres, but also about the sort of cloud-based applications that researchers would find helpful to maximise their research outputs.

The Research Excellence Framework will be introduced by HEFCE to replace the UK’s Research Assessment Exercise over the next few years. It is likely that, as with the RAE, universities will be asked to submit structured information about their research. By utilising these new applications, researchers will save time and reduce levels of bureaucracy that exist when working across different systems. It will also give them more time to focus on their grant bids and the business of researching rather the administration behind the research.

Experts at The Digital Curation Centre, which delivers best practise advice for storing, managing and protecting digital data, will also be working to help researchers and information professionals develop their skills in this area. With a new approach to migrating existing systems or adopting new ones comes an opportunity to work more effectively and efficiently.

Over the coming months JISC will be working with network and library professionals through organisations such as SCONUL to deliver additional services that improve the management of electronic resources for researchers and their support teams and the administration of a research programme throughout its  whole lifecycle. This should make the process more efficient and cost effective to manage.

The vision is for researchers to work from any location in a trusted cloud with applications and services specifically supporting their research data management needs. It is a challenge but there is a desire from the UK’s research community to see it happen and a willingness from partners and universities to adopt such an approach.

David Utting is director of service relationships at JISC