2 of 6Image
Last week saw the second College IT Conference, an annual get-together of the IT teams that manage the residential colleges at the universities of Cambridge and Oxford.
Although representatives from Cambridge dominated in terms of numbers (the organisers work for that university), this year's conference — held at the Williams F1 Conference Centre in Oxfordshire (pictured) — was a chance for college IT managers from the rival universities to discuss the common issues that they face in running systems for thousands of students in residence.
ZDNet UK was at the conference, held on Friday, to get delegates' views on hot topics such as virtualisation, cloud computing and the challenges posed by a new generation of tech-savvy students.
Ashley Meggitt, at IT manager at Jesus College, Cambridge, was one of the College IT Conference's main organisers. He called for colleges — whose IT departments are distinct from those that run the universities' faculties — to "take more of a business approach" to the way they run their services.
"We tend to have ancient processes — a college may use a computer to carry on those old processes, but we need more efficiencies," Meggitt said. "A student arrives in the flesh, and we feed them and give them their degrees. We need to make sure the virtual student flows through our systems, as it were. That is what they expect. Students coming in now are used to using technology, and their expectations of what we can deliver are high. We need to work out how to do this for them and at the same time keep control of the data."
Jesus College has been using virtualisation technology for a year and a half now. "It's doing a lot for us," Meggitt said. "It's server, not desktop, virtualisation, but that's clearly on the horizon. We use the latest enterprise version of VMware, but many colleges would go for the open-source alternative — Xen was developed in Cambridge, obviously. We're slightly unusual, as we take more of a business approach — we need to consider the management benefits and develop a decent disaster-recovery procedure. We went with VMware because it was out before Xen, and Xen couldn't do live migration at the time."
Asked whether Jesus College had gone with VMware because of Xen's open-source nature, Meggitt said that was not a motivating factor, but it may have been so for other colleges.
According to Meggitt, students are becoming used to seeing cloud-type services in the consumer world and in their parents' businesses, and they now want such services at university. He said, however, that he is concerned both about the security implications of cloud computing and the possible issues with machine-to-machine interfaces.
"This is college information to a certain extent," Meggitt said. "I'm concerned that we'd lose security. Our big thing is integration. If we have online storage and applications, where does that data go, where is it stored and can I move it around fast enough? Probably not."
"I am concerned as to whether it feels like our information to get hold of, machine-to-machine," Meggitt said. "I'm talking database integration here — it needs to happen behind the scenes. As a user, I use Google Apps. But, as an institution, we need to have interfaces to get data — we need it to be as flexible as possible."
Mirza Baig is a computer officer at Wolfson College, Cambridge, which adopted virtualisation technology just three months ago.
"We'd been looking into it for the past year," Baig told ZDNet UK. "It's server virtualisation, using Xen. We have about 15 servers, and the server room is quite small, and we have no space. It's an initial investment but cheaper in the long term. The main advantage is resilience — energy costs are not our main concern, but there is an advantage there. We have the air conditioning at maximum capacity in our server room."
Baig said that, while virtualisation is "quite a new technology", he and his colleagues had found it simple to implement. "Training was an issue at the start but, once you know what you're doing, it's OK."
Xen was developed at Cambridge, and Baig praised the virtualisation technology as "a robust product and much cheaper than VMware". He did, however, complain that Xen's pricing structure was not very clear, saying that "the Xen guys [now within Xen's new owner, Citrix] need to invest more in marketing".
He also pointed to "poor" documentation for virtualisation products as a whole. "There is no big knowledge base on the internet you can trust," Baig said. "We need a website comprehensively dedicated to virtualisation."