Friday, December 9, 2011

How clouds are transforming education, research and libraries

[I recently the great pleasure of visiting JISC and JANET in the UK and was very impressed on their understanding of the potential of commercial clouds to radically transform education, research and libraries.
 Clouds promise to unleash researchers, educators, administrators and librarians from the mundane tasks of administration and other services freeing them to focus on their core interests.

Clouds may also radically transform campus network architectures as they continue the trend of driving more and more traffic away from local servers to distant cloud providers.  In fact some research and education networks are concerned that the next explosion in traffic will not be from higher education institutions, but from community colleges, further education and elementary schools.  As these institutions look to replace textbooks with iPads and similar devices where all the education materials and library tools are located in the cloud, the need for high bandwidth fiber connectivity to every education institution will be critical.

For the research community exploding data volumes mean that data management activities often become all-consuming. It is this realization that recently led a number of researchers such as Ian Foster to launch Globus Online.  It aims to provide complex and time-consuming research management processes via SaaS (Software as a Service) using commercial clouds. In the first phases of this project, it will be focused on relatively simple processes, like data movement. But the goal is to make the discovery potential of massive data, exponentially faster computers, and deep interdisciplinary collaboration accessible to every one of the million or more professional researchers worldwide not just a select few “big science” projects.

The Globus Online is particularly designed to address the needs of small science projects. It is believed that small science is where most scientists work and where the vast majority of discovery occurs, but it's an area that hasn't seen a lot of focus in terms of infrastructure software. It's also an area where big problems are emerging (because of the data deluge) and where the traditional big science approach (build a big team, construct a custom software solution) isn't feasible.

Big increases in data generated within research laboratories entail more demands for more careful data management. Researchers need not just data storage but full service data lifecycle management processes, encompassing data collection, storage, sharing, metadata, search, archiving, provenance, etc. Establishing and efficiently executing such processes would demand substantial time and resources that most researchers do not have, and cannot easily acquire.  The Globus Online initiative proposes to outsource the entire lifecycle management process to a third party developed and operated by dedicated staff who are experts at performing relevant tasks reliably, securely, and at scale.

JISC is actually putting theory into practice by developing a number of cloud based tools for researchers as shown below.

But as Ian Foster points out, this move to clouds will also require a new third party delivery organizations to develop the common services for researchers, educators and librarians that will operate on commercial clouds.  As you can see from the following pointers JISC is leading the world in developing these services using commercial cloud services brokered by JANET.  And as noted in the JANET blog, I suspect that many commercial cloud services will provide their services for free, or almost free, to the research and education community.  The value proposition of universities or colleges operating their own servers or clusters I think is going to rapidly disappear in the coming years.

Most importantly these cloud services will allow universities to dramatically reduce their carbon footprint by using zero carbon commercial cloud providers as recently demonstrated by SURFnet in their SURFnet 7  launch of connecting lightpaths from the Netherlands to GreenQcloud in Iceland. University and college computing facilities can represent anywhere from 15-40% all electricity consumption at a typical institution-–BSA]


The battle for time and resource
A new cloud-based service is set to transform the way libraries work, unleashing librarians from their admin burden to focus on services for students and researchers.
This cloud service is called the Shared Academic Knowledge Base plus, or KB+, and will be a database covering all ‘subscribed resources’ from a UK higher education perspective. That includes data such like publication information, holdings and rights, subscription management, organisations, licences and evidence such as usage statistics and financial data in an online catalogue across all UK academic libraries.
Showers is, however, adamant that “we are not developing a new electronic resource management system”; rather, the focus is on data and harnessing the community effort and work that happens at an institutional level. JISC aims to simplify the the challenge of collating accurate, quality and timely data across UK universities.
But there is also international interest in JISC’s work. Showers says, “A lot of what is done nationally could just as easily be done internationally, so we are working closely with partners like the Kuali Open Library environment project in the United States.”

Cloud Services for researchers

Accelerating Data Intensive Science by Outsourcing the Mundane
JISC cloud services for researchers

UMF Shared Services and the Cloud Programme
The £12.5 million UMF Shared Services and the Cloud Programme is part of a suite of activities under the University Modernisation Fund (UMF), a HEFCE fund that aims to help universities and colleges deliver better efficiency and value for money through the development of shared services.
This programme will invest up to £10 million to establish a shared infrastructure with suppliers brokered by JANET(UK) and support for research data management provided by DCC. The infrastructure will develop into a HE cloud and will support both research data management and enterprise application deployment. Up to a further £2.5 million will be used to develop shared services in administrative systems that support the delivery of learning, teaching, and research. Such shared services will allow universities and colleges to benefit from aggregated purchasing and reduced implementation and hosting costs, as well as through the streamlining of processes.
The HEFCE-funded UMF Shared Services and the Cloud Programme is managed by the JISC and will run from 1st February 2011 until 31st March 2012.
These applications are designed to be delivered as SaaS from virtual servers within an institution or deployed on third party sites as is most cost effective and thus provide researchers with Cloud based tools to assist their work and help manage their data effectively. BRISSkit developed by Leicester University is designed to provide support for joint NHS and University research teams working with tissue samples and anonymised patient data. ViDaaS developed at Oxford is designed to provide Database as a Service to a wide range of Arts and Humanities researchers. Smart Research Framework (SRF) developed at Southampton will provide electronic lab data management and collaborations tools. Dataflow developed at Oxford provides an integrated set of tools to manage data within projects and then to store it for the longer term by simplifying the set up of Sword compliant data repositories and the submission of data to them. Each project will set up a website in the next few weeks and links will then be posted here.

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JANET UK brokerage

We’re seeing a number of providers thinking about offering some element of their cloud service for free to the education sector, as well as highly secure government clouds starting to come online too. There’s a fair chance higher education institutions will want to take advantage of all of these offerings to one degree or another and if we do, the management of identity could frankly become a nightmare with multiple cloud providers in use simultaneously.
While there has been lots of talk about single sign on and other identity mechanisms. I think we may finally be at a tipping point, where this has to get solved due to the sheer weight of services involved - and about time too! I’m hopeful that the Moonshot project being investigated within Janet will provide some of the toolset to help answer this fundamental cloud issue.

Green Internet Consultant. Practical solutions to reducing GHG emissions such as free broadband and electric highways.
twitter:  BillStArnaud
skype:    Pocketpro