How the Cloud benefits research and education
Cloud computing offers new opportunities and challenges as both a technology and operations model, but what impact does it have on the Research and Education (R&E) sector? The traditional answers have been cost reduction and flexibility. However the cloud offers a wide range of additional benefits, including global collaboration, accelerated innovation, and enhanced user experience and satisfaction - as well as risk mitigation and the ability to smooth users' demands and allow NRENs to support new and emerging requirements cost effectively.
What is ‘The Cloud’?
Just as there are hundreds of cloud services, there are hundreds of different definitions of what “The Cloud” really means. This has resulted in many organisations rebranding their services as “Cloud Services” in order to jump on the bandwagon of this new technology. In simple terms, cloud services are software, applications or facilities that are hosted in data centres connected to the internet, remote from the users. They are based on infrastructure owned by a third party with access rented by multiple users. They are called “Cloud Services” simply because in diagrams the internet is usually represented by drawing a cloud and these facilities are inside this cloud!
Cloud services offer NRENs new ways to deliver existing services and to enable services that could not otherwise be delivered. They offer a flexible “pay-as-you-go” model enabling researchers and students the ability to start small and grow as needed.
In many cases, the needs of the Research and Education community go beyond the basic commodity offerings of many cloud service providers. In addition, areas such as data integrity, privacy and security mean that GÉANT and the NRENs have a key role to play in ensuring that services are fit for purpose and are contracted in ways that meet the needs of the R&E community.
New usage modals
The rise of BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) within the education sector is being matched by the increase in BYOC (Bring Your Own Cloud). Users are increasingly technologically savvy and so less willing to accept what IT departments give them. If a researcher or a student needs a service now then they will try and obtain it, rather than wait for a potentially lengthy or inflexible provisioning via their IT department.
The world is becoming more interconnected and this is most apparent within the R&E sector. The ability to work together and manage “knowledge-intensive” collaboration in today’s interconnected world relies on the cloud. The cloud offers these international collaborations the ability to acquire immensely powerful systems without lengthy development projects and without the need to bring in dedicated support systems and teams.
Agility and accelerated innovation
More and more research and education activities are becoming reliant on connected IT services. Whilst the extremely large projects have the inhouse resources to manage complex IT solutions, it is arguably within smaller projects that cloud services can benefit R&E more.
Projects from across the spectrum of education can use the flexible, ondemand, “pay and play” offerings to manage their needs and enable them to focus on their research rather than have to spend time and resources on making the IT work. Media and the Performing arts are an example of groups that can focus on being IT consumers rather than IT developers.
Enhanced user experience
With the rise in high performance networks and Federated Identity, computing resources can be located virtually anywhere with users being able to reach and manage them from any location. As IT becomes less “something that needs to be done” and more “something that can be used” it makes research much more agile and innovative. Cloud Services become a basic commodity to be turned on and off on demand which allows the skills of the teams to be directed towards generating new and innovative activities.
How GÉANT and the NRENs can help the R&E community
Within the R&E community the opportunities for the use of cloud computing are clear; increased flexibility, demand smoothing, expansion of services to wider audiences. But there are significant challenges.
Most Cloud Service Providers offer a range of basic services targeted at either individuals or businesses. The needs of the R&E community frequently go beyond this – particularly in areas such as data integrity and transferability. GÉANT and the NRENs can work with CSPs to help ensure that these services are suitable for our community.
Purchase models and cost predictability
The purchase models offered by cloud providers often do not match the financial structures in the R&E community/environment. For instance, those purchasing the services on behalf of an institution will have limited access to company credit cards. So cloud services will have to be acquired through the institutions’ purchasing structures, meeting procurement and tender regulations. In addition, the payment structures offered by cloud providers are too unpredictable, as they contain large variable cost components. To prevent the (fear of a) bill shock, predictable cost models and purchase-order-based systems are needed.
Users expect services to be highly available and offer seamless performance as if the services were local. The NREN networks and GÉANT have significant roles to play in ensuring the user experience of cloud services match expectation. Developments such as SDN and other advanced networking technologies will be driven by this need for high performance networking. Also, the variable costs of services can be reduced by limiting network traffic charges (data ingress and egress), through peering arrangements and connecting cloud providers to the GÉANT and NRENs networks.
Access and user identity
Access and Security of cloud services is another challenge for the future development of cloud services (particularly hybrid solutions). The cost and complexity of managing user access to services can be considerable and users don’t want to manage multiple logins and identities.
The Interfederation approach developed by eduGAIN can provide an open, flexible and extensible solution to the need for users to be able to access resources from multiple suppliers in a seamless and secure manner. eduGAIN, and federated identity solutions via NRENs, also provide opportunities for CSPs to enhance their offerings to the R&E community and help gain acceptance.
By combining these three fields – Cloud Services, High Performance Networking and Interfederated Identity, GÉANT and the NRENs can leverage the skills and abilities of their own resources with those of cloud providers to offer their users enhanced facilities.
For more information on how GÉANT is supporting the NRENs and the wider Research and Education Community visit http://clouds.geant.net