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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."
Chris Bamber is the IT systems manager at Somerville College, Oxford. He told ZDNet UK that his college was slowly looking at adopting virtualisation technology.
"[Virtualisation] is a solution for problems we have — space is our problem," Bamber said. "We'll look at power and cooling to see what benefits can be gained. There was an 85 percent hike in electricity prices over the last year. Anything we can bring in to give us out-of-hours resilience is a good thing."
Bamber was less concerned with the buzz surrounding cloud computing. "There's been a mention, but I don't think anyone is that concerned," he said. "It's more of a departmental focus — we deal with accommodation. It will come down to resilience, power and maybe disaster recovery. Insurance companies are also snapping at the heels of the colleges to look for their business approach."
Rival colleges are starting to look at using each other for systems backup purposes, according to Bamber. "That would mean halving the cost but keeping resilience," he said. "Working together is always interesting."
The biggest problem facing college IT administrators is security, Bamber said. "We spend most of our time firefighting with students. Our biggest threat is internal users. We have more than 300 students, 24/7, for 24 weeks a year."
Bamber said that, while the new generation of students are "computer natives", they can be very lax in terms of security. "We put in secure procedures, but next time new viruses come out, they'll be on the network before you know it," he said. "You can be proactive as you can but, if the colleges are not willing to pay for 24/7 staff, that's what happens."
Espen Koht manages IT systems for two Cambridge colleges: Darwin and St Edmund's. He noted how times have changed for IT managers in the colleges.
He said that, for example, students wanting to put up a website used to approach the college IT managers for web space. Now they can organise that space easily themselves.
"It's going to be an interesting shift for a lot of us," Koht said. "In the last few years, we had a captive audience for our services, but now we just offer core services. We provided students with great [broadband] speeds in their rooms, but that's not that special anymore."
Koht linked this change with the rise of cloud-type services. "IT is always expanding, but we're losing the contact we had with customers, and are taken for granted," he told ZDNet UK. "Students are not that bothered with what college IT managers do, and that's fair enough. But I'm interested in seeing if, with the cloud, people lose their way." He added that universities' traditional role involved the mediation and filtering of information, saying that "maybe that has to come back".
Koht did, however, express some relief at the self-sufficiency that might result from students' use of cloud services. "It will be useful in that people won't come to me asking for a copy of Microsoft Office," he said. "People will be better at getting information. Less of the 'How can I get access to my files?' stuff will make my life simpler."
Darwin and St Edmund's are already adopting certain forms of desktop virtualisation, Koht said. "We use it on the infrastructure side, to test things out," he said. "When I lend a student a virtual computer, that's desktop virtualisation. I can give them admin rights, which I couldn't before. It's also useful for [providing a virtual machine to] people whose computer has broken down".