Cambridge IT managers talk virtualisation, cloud

At the College IT Conference, the IT managers of the ancient Cambridge and Oxford colleges met to discuss common problems and opportunities
By David Meyer on
1 of 6 David Meyer/ZDNet

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.

2 of 6 David Meyer/ZDNet

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."

3 of 6 David Meyer/ZDNet

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."

4 of 6 David Meyer/ZDNet

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."

5 of 6 David Meyer/ZDNet

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".

6 of 6 David Meyer/ZDNet

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.

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