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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".
David Eyers is a research associate at the Cambridge Computer Laboratory, and also a support officer at King's College. He expressed a degree of suspicion concerning the security of virtualised servers.
"I don't think it's necessarily a risk, but you are adding a layer of abstraction," Eyers said. "With current technology, it's unavoidable that there's at least a risk in the integrity of any layer. There is very little evidence of any problem with any of these layers, but there's a risk factor for people shifting infrastructure. Homogeneity can be a risk factor. The whole point about virtualisation layers is that, because they minimise complexity, they also minimise the security surface layer."
Eyers said his team had only seen cloud computing "rear its head" in hosted storage, used for off-site backups. "In terms of computational stuff, that's a departmental concern, and a lot of it is in-house, where they've got the money," he said.
University researchers might be unable to fully explore the cloud, Eyers added, because of the heavy corporate ownership of that sector.
"One of the things, research-wise, that's very interesting is that the cloud is very commercially owned," Eyers said. "Google's people talk about embracing the cloud but, as researchers, we don't own the cloud. How do you do research in the cloud, where there is strong corporate ownership? Companies are very supportive of research, but they can't have people messing up machines testing things out."
Eyers acknowledged, however, that "it has to be like that to some degree, because organisations like Amazon and Google are already so large it makes sense to offer their computational services to other businesses".
Others at the conference also told ZDNet UK that researchers might be wary of using cloud-based services for their work because of the intellectual property involved, and the suspicion that the user might be ceding some control of the hosted information to the cloud supplier.