On Thursday I attended another excellent Eduserv Symposium event. I enjoyed last year’s event on “The Mobile University” – although the Web site itself and the various presentations seem to have disappeared from the original location so I’m reliant on blog posts, such as Mike’ Jones’ Fairly Positive blog to remind me of the details. (Update last year’s Web site was moved so although many report’s on last year’s event will have broken links, the Web site is still available).

This year’s event was on “Virtualisation and the Cloud: Realising the benefits of shared infrastructure” and once again Andy Powell and colleagues did a great job in providing a fascinating series of talks at an excellent venue and, from all accounts, a great experience for the remote audience viewing the live video stream and participating in discussions using the #esym11 Twitter hashtag.

Videos of the talks and the accompanying slides should be available shortly. I’ll not attempt to summarise the talks – if you want to read detailed reports on the talks I suggest you take a look at Chris Sexton’s excellent notes on the opening keynote talk; Kenji Takeda’s talk on research data management; Armando Fox’s closing plenary talk and  her round-up of the other talks. I would add that I found the keynote talks on “Situation normal, everything must change!” given by Simon Wardley and  “Closing keynote: Above the clouds – A view from academia” by Armando Fox which opened and closed the event particularly interesting.

It struck me during the day that the discussions we were hearing about development of Cloud Services for UK higher educational institutions and the question “Do Universities want to be providers or consumers of Cloud Services?” reflected similar issues related to institutional and national provision of services and sectoral development of services versus procurement of services developed elsewhere which have surfaced repeatedly within the sector for several decades.

I raised this issue during the day in the context of procurement policies for mainframe computers during, I think, the 1970s when UK Universities were ‘encouraged’ to purchase ICL mainframes (this was, of course, when ICL was a British computer manufacturer, and before it was purchased by Fujitsu and before it developed the ICL Perq workstation).  I heard stories that some Universities chose to break rank and purchase mainframes from other manufacturers – although reasons for doing this were not only to exploit the benefits of scale provided by embracing the commercial sector but also to  exploit operating system environment developed within an educational environment (by which I mean MTS,  the Michigan Terminal System which I remember using as a research students at Newcastle University in the late 1970s).

The suggestions about development of a small number of solutions within the sector also reminded me of the experiences of the MAC initiative, which sought to harmonise MIS systems around two (or three?) families of solutions.  This was described in an article on “Theory and Practice of the Virtual University” published in Ariadne as “the ill-fated UK University Funding Council ‘MAC’ initiative” (let me add that there doesn’t seem to be an article about the MAC Initiative available in Wikipedia, which I fund unfortunate as it means that it is not easy to unearth details about this activity and learn lessons about what went wrong).

The experiences of mainframe procurement policies during the 1960s and 70s and the MAC Initiative of course took place at a time prior to the importance of networked services and in which policies and sectoral cultures reflected the UK’s environment. During Armando Fox’s reflections on use of Cloud services at UC Berkeley  it struck me that the story he told reflected a US perspective in which national solutions would not be considered in the way that they may be in the UK, with our background of national organisations dating back to the Computer Board and funding regimes and national strategies which have been coordinated by organisations such as the JISC.

I feel that we need to reflect on lessons of IT developments in the past in order that we don’t repeat mistakes which have been made. Looking at the notes of the symposium which Chris Sexton made it does seem to be that there are a number of interesting questions and differing approaches which need to be considered in more detail:

  • Simon Wardley’s opening plenary talk highlighted issues such as risks and benefits and the need for institutions to have “a willingness to adopt new models“.
  • Kenji Takeda from the University of Southampton reported on work at the University of Southampton: “in the short term they included developing an institutional data repository and develop a scaleable business model“.
  • Terence Harmer, from the Belfast eScience Centre (BeSC)  an alternative approach to use of Cloud Services: “The BeSC is entirely self funding, don’t use shared resources within the University infrastructure. They have no internal infrastructure for mail, calendars, chat rooms, and all project shared services have migrated to utility resources. They are in the business of turning internal kit off. Users are not interested in kit, but capabilities. They buy capacity and storage on demand, and play the market.
  • Armando Fox, in the closing plenary talk described how at UC Berkely “they had moved their services to Amazon’s EC2 in 2008, and since then have spent $350,000 on amazon web services. That’s about 1/3 of a PhD student a month. It’s allowed them to carry out many experiments, have large scale storage and carry out cloud programming“.

I think it is clear that The Cloud isn’t the silver bullet which funders may hope will provide a simple way of gaining efficiency gains across the sector.  I am pleased that the Eduserv Symposium helped to identify some of the different approaches which are being developed – even if we didn’t really reach any agreement on what solutions may be most appropriate for the sector.