Oxford University Builds VMware Private Cloud

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Oxford University will offer managed cloud IT services to other universities in Britain

Oxford University is building its own private cloud, based on VMware’s vCloud suite, in a move that will allow it to become a shared service provider for various Oxford colleges, as well as other universities around the UK.

Oxford is a long-standing VMware customer, and already provides virtual machines and services to colleges and departments of the university using a vSphere platform. However, according to Jon Hutchings, senior systems engineer at Oxford University Computing Services (OUCS), the organisation now aims to provide a “world-class platform” that will encourage people to buy into the idea of cloud computing.

“Oxford operates on a principle where everything’s done locally within your department or college,” explained Hutchings at a VMworld press event in Copenhagen. “Obviously, within IT, that can lead to significant duplication of effort and resources, and it’s not the most efficient way to do things in the modern IT world.”

Resisting the cloud

The university has built a new physical data centre, which Hutchings says is “as environmentally efficient as a large data centre can be”. While outsourcing the data to a managed services provider like Colt might have been easier than deploying a private cloud, the funding bodies that control the university’s research data are very restrictive about where that data can live.

“They’re really not happy about moving it outside the bounds of a university data centre – particularly with clinical trial data and medical data,” said Hutchings. “I’m sure that will change over time but we have to deal with the demands of our users now.”

There is also an advantage in having a solid on-premise infrastructure as organisations move to a hybrid cloud model, said Huntchings, as it is something to fall back on if any problems arise with the cloud provider. “It’s all very well to say you’ve put all your workloads in the cloud, but if you want to take them out, where are you going to put them?”

Moreover, there is a cultural problem with moving to a private cloud infrastructure, to do with IT officers wanting to retain control. “They see any centralisation as taking away the interesting part of their job,” he said.

The undertaking is quite a risk for the university, as OUCS cannot force departments to use cloud services, so it has to make them as attractive as possible to drive uptake and make the investment pay off.

“It’s no good if it takes twice as long to provision something by centralising it as it does to do it locally,” said Hutchings. “We need snappy provisioning.”

Aiming for a hybrid model

The organisation hopes to eventually move to a hybrid cloud model, so that certain workloads can be migrated to a public cloud environment, reducing the need for constant expansion of the university’s private cloud.

This could also be expanded to allow collaborate with more departments or even other universities. Oxford has already been awarded a £1.4 million government grant to provide a service catalogue for the higher education sector in the UK, based on its development of a database-as-a-service offering.

“We see many opportunities to build a really compelling service catalogue for universities to choose from, and push those efficiencies out to the wider sector,” said Hutchings.

Cloud computing has been seen as a good fit for university computing for some time – in 2008, Cambridge University discussed making a cloud service that would be available on a commercial basis to customers outside the university.  It’s been reported that Cambridge has taken a different approach to the cloud infrastructure, using the Cambridge-developed Xen hypervisor, instead of VMware.

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