The traditional autumn conference season kicked off on Tuesday 9 September with the opening day of the Universities UK’s (UUK’s) Members’ Annual Conference.
The theme this year is ‘strength in diversity’ and at Jisc, we’ve got our own big news on the same theme this month with the launch of our new shared data centre for academic and medical research. So I’m pleased to be one of a team giving a break-out presentation about it at the conference on day two.
We’ve got just an hour to describe how we’ve managed to put together a shared data centre for the UK’s academic research when others have tried unsuccessfully before, and to show how it’s already boosting research efficiency for the founding data centre members. No pressure, then.
Shared data centres
In theory, a shared data centre should be an easy sell. Most people who want UK research to be world-leading really like the idea of data centres, and shared data centres hold out the promise of even greater benefits than those afforded by standalone ones – more efficient aggregation, easier sharing of data, opportunities to develop common data platforms and foster collaborations, plus important economies of scale. And yet efforts to set them up have failed until now.
Largely, this is because the people responsible for looking after an institution’s data feel reassured when they can see and feel the kit that they are using to do it. It’s in their own hands and this makes them feel confident that no-one can touch their academic freedom.
But that’s a red herring, and Nick Luscombe, professor of computational research at University College London is speaking at the session to explain why. His is one of the research bodies that is already using the Jisc shared data centre so he’s well-placed to explain how handing over the non-academic aspects of looking after research-generated data is freeing him up to spend more time on the stuff that really matters to him.
Certainly, increasing cost and infrastructure pressures have also played an important part in pushing the development of a shared data centre further up the list of priorities.
The six leading research institutions already using the shared data centre are 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. They have found that as the cost of premises in London rise it’s preferable to use the space they have for people rather than machines, especially as there’s very little capacity within London’s electricity grid to add in the kind of extra power that would be needed to support multiple standalone data centres. It’s much cheaper and more practical to farm the practicalities out to a shared facility in the suburbs.
That was the real killer incentive for the Francis Crick Institute, and the other five institutions have been quick to make use of the opportunity too. With a £900,000 investment from the Higher Education Funding Council for England’s (HEFCE’s) University Modernisation Fund, the Jisc shared data centre is open for business now – and not just for those who’ve been in from the outset.
It’s available to all the UK’s research institutions and as more outsource their data centre activity to us, we are looking forward to fostering rich and innovative collaborations, and to supporting discoveries that might otherwise not have been possible.
We’ve also worked on ways to remove the financial disincentives that universities have traditionally faced when working with third party suppliers. I hope that, if you’re attending the UUK Conference, you’ll join our session to hear more about the shared data centre, and why you might want to consider working with us instead of adding extra racks to your own data centre in future. Alternatively, there’s more about the shared data centre on our website and also on the HEFCE website.
Phil Richards is speaking at the UUK Annual Conference on Wednesday 10 September, alongside Professor Martyn Harrow, Jisc’s chief executive, and Professor Nick Luscombe. There will be a panel discussion chaired by Professor Paul Layzell, Royal Holloway, University of London. Watch and download presentation.