What are your data and computing requirements likely to look like in five years' time? How about ten? Will you have the right level of infrastructure and expertise to support them? It's a difficult but necessary line of questioning if colleges are to properly assess and evolve to meet their future needs.
Traditionally colleges would have set up a dedicated space or room on site to store their servers and data. Technology has come to play an ever-bigger role in learning and teaching over the last few years, with services expected to be accessible at all times, so availability and reliability is paramount. The amount of data colleges collect, generate and use is growing exponentially – from course content and VLEs, to student performance and even how often they're accessing college services. There's a real risk that some organisations might outgrow their current computing, storage, network infrastructure and management solutions as the reliance on such services continues at such a pace, which could impact on staff and students being able to access IT services.
For colleges needing to improve and grow their service provision in a cost-effective way, shared data centres can come as something of a shining light.
Cutting costs, saving carbon
It's no secret that the further education sector is facing some of the biggest cuts in its history. Colleges find themselves walking along a knife-edge, having to seek out new efficiencies that not only protect how they deliver to students, but actually improve their service in order to survive. Is an onsite data centre really the most efficient use of time and space? And then there's the costs of running a data centre yourself. You might have accounted for investment in new resources and maintenance of legacy systems, but what about the energy bills for this power-intensive equipment?
Shared data centre framework agreements that are tailored to your needs allow you to buy as much rack space as you need. The operational costs will tend to be far lower than those involved in onsite management and you also have the flexibility to scale up requirements as your needs grow. This allows you to pay only for what you need, knowing you can quickly and easily develop your services as necessary. Moving bulky IT infrastructure offsite also allows for better use of space, even sometimes giving you back room for teaching.
A welcome upshot of using outsourced data centre services is a reduction in a college's carbon footprint through potentially reduced electricity use due to the improved efficiencies in cooling technologies employed in large scale data centres, which as well as costs helps colleges to meet corporate social responsibility commitments, of which sustainability is a big part.
Cost efficiencies aren't the only consideration of course. Colleges tend not to have the resources to employ dedicated data centre managers or staff. The responsibility instead tends to fall to the IT department, who are tasked with ensuring their computing infrastructure is properly supported alongside supporting teaching and learning, and the general business of the organisation.
Outsourcing to a shared data centre hands over the day-to-day management of the necessary infrastructure to support the availability of services to a team of people who are experts in the field, and able to offer a highly resilient service in terms of power delivery, equipment cooling, and network connectivity. It also frees up college staff time to concentrate on their core role: supporting and delivering an excellent learning experience for every student. As one college leader told me: "We're not in the business of running a data centre – we leave that to the experts."
And in being experts, data centre providers are also able to offer a high level of security – crucial when it comes to personal data.
Dedicated data centre
Anticipating a burgeoning response for data centre support from the sector, last year we created a framework agreement to provide colleges and universities with easy access to state-of-the-art data centre facilities. This led to us launching the UK's only national shared data centre for education and research with specialist data centre provider Infinity SDC in September 2014.
A major benefit of our shared data centre is that it is directly connected to the core of Janet, the UK's education and research network, to which almost all further education colleges have a connection. This means that any college wishing to use the shared data centre can do so, with the assurance that their Janet connection will allow them to access their data quickly, securely and efficiently, no matter where they are in the UK.
Almost a year on, our shared data centre is home to some of the biggest research-intensive universities in the UK, but it's also received significant interest from colleges. This summer City of Liverpool College became the first further education tenant in the data centre, and we're in conversations with a number of other providers which we expect to bear fruit over the next few months.
Tim Kidd is executive director of Jisc technologies, which provides digital solutions for UK education and research