Loughborough University builds a hybrid cloud

In 2009, Loughborough University’s legacy data centre was on its last legs. “It had a power usage effectiveness (PUE) of somewhere between 2.5 and 3,” IT director Phil Richards explained at Information Age‘s recent Future of the Data Centre conference. “After 40 years, it was really coming to the end of its useful life.”

In fact, the limitations of the data centre meant that the university’s IT infrastructure was actually spread across what Richards describes as DDUDs, or distributed data centres under desks.

“[The academics] stopped trusting the central IT services to be able to provide resources quickly enough for them to do very rapid research,” he says, so they would build their own kit. “Clearly, that posed risks associated with information security and intellectual property.”

Simply refurbishing the existing facility was not an option, however, for economic reasons. “To do that in an environmental manner can cost £2.5 million simply in building, mechanical and engineering costs, before putting in a single server,” he says.

At the same time, hosting the university’s entire IT infrastructure in the cloud would also have been too expensive, says Richards. What’s more, the university’s senior management recoiled at the thought of a purely externally hosted solution.

Instead, Richards opted for the “middle way”, building a bona fide hybrid cloud. On campus, Richards installed two “data centre lite” mini-pods, fitted with Cisco’s UCS server platform, on opposite sides of the campus. One of these was located in a £20,000 “fireproof garden shed”, the only property investment required in the project. 

This infrastructure, virtualised using VMware’s platform, connects into VMware-based cloud infrastructure hosted by IT services partner Logicalis, via the UK’s higher education network JANET.

This set-up allows Loughborough to scale up its virtualised infrastructure when needed, and provides the possibility of migrating entirely to the Logicalis data centre in the case of a disaster. As a proof of concept, Richards successfully moved the entire infrastructure to Logicalis’s cloud without having to reconfigure any hardware. 

That said, “we’re still running most of our workloads locally because that’s the cheapest way to do it”, Richards explained.

The resulting system, Richards said, “is agile, scalable, and was very cheap to install. Plus we can easily add additional racks locally if we need to”. 

The £20,000 “garden shed” boasts a PUE of 1.4. Richards explained that had the university invested in a more high-tech new facility, this could have been lower. However, compared with the historical baseline of over 2.5, it is more than enough of an improvement for now. 

The university’s use of cloud services is not limited to the Logicalis platform. It already uses Google Apps, thanks to the web giant’s offer of free services to university students, and cloud-hosted IT service management tool ServiceNow.

Richards said that he has examined the possibility of using public cloud services to bolster the university’s infrastructure, but so far the cost of those services means it doesn’t make economic sense. “I hope utility services will come up over the next two or three years that are lower in price,” he said. “As soon as that happens, I’ll be first in the queue.” 

Pete Swabey

Pete Swabey

Pete was Editor of Information Age and head of technology research for Vitesse Media plc from 2005 to 2013, before moving on to be Senior Editor and then Editorial Director at The Economist Intelligence...

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