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Data at the heart of digital transformation

Source: PSE April/May 2018


Grant Caley, UK & Ireland chief technologist at NetApp, speaks to PSE’s Luana Salles about the benefits of moving to a hybrid cloud model to manage data flexibly and seamlessly.

In a world shifting toward digital transformation, data has become the lifeblood of organisations looking to drive change and improve their public service delivery.

New capabilities for generating and accessing big data with the benefits it brings for research, service customisation and efficiency offers both great opportunity and increased responsibility.

As well as the efforts in managing information, it’s crucial, especially in the light of cyber-attacks and upcoming data protection regulations, that you safeguard data to the highest possible standards. It is especially true in the public sector, which has large holdings of personal information, state secrets and critical research data, making it an especially attractive target to cybercriminals – and it often lacks the funding and resources to combat this threat effectively.

Spotlight on Higher Education

Within the education sector data is growing rapidly, driven by changes in course delivery methods, the underlying technologies used – such as high-resolution video in teaching and coursework – and by advances in research, which require vast reservoirs of data to support areas such as machine learning, clinical research, particle physics and astronomy. This data is extremely valuable to students and researchers alike and is growing exponentially.

Explaining this further, Grant Caley, UK & Ireland chief technologist at NetApp, a solutions provider which boasts 25 years in the technology and data sector, said: “I was at the Bett Show [an event bringing together educators and technology experts to help learners to fulfil their potential] last month and if you look at what was there, it’s all about interacting with data, high-resolution visualisation and interaction, including virtual reality – with data at the core of everything that’s happening in that space.

“And that’s the challenge that Higher Education (HE) has: how it manages the data and its exponential growth. That’s something that’s never focused on; there’s been no strategy regarding organisations that are coping with not just large amounts of data, but new sources of data and metadata, and the skills they have to acquire to apply that data effectively and correctly.”

The ongoing digital revolution that has swept up businesses in the private and public sectors alike is also changing the types of data universities and other HE organisations have to manage. Yesterday’s student course notes or perhaps a low-resolution recording of a lecture or student artistic performance are instead today captured in high-resolution 4K video; needless to say, this creates both proliferation and larger file sizes. To make matters worse, a lot of universities rely on legacy infrastructure to manage their data centres, creating so-called ‘technical debt’ over the years.

“That’s one reason why they’re starting to look at the cloud, effectively leaving a lot of that legacy behind,” explained Caley.

“Online universities, such as Universidad International of La Rioja in Spain, for example, are delivering new education offerings through the cloud with NetApp. By working with us to deliver services based on a hybrid and multi-cloud model with built-in data mobility, they eliminate the risk of creating future silos in the cloud and of future lock-in.”

The looming General Data Protection Regulation, which comes into force on 25 May this year, is also of particular importance, especially since universities have always been subject to cyber-attacks. “The personal information they hold and manage represents another layer of risk; securing and protecting this adds to the technical challenges faced by HE,” he added.

Universities are also at the forefront of implementing advanced technology such as complex computational modelling/analysis, along with deep learning and artificial intelligence. “If you’re going to implement these types of technologies, you need to start looking at how you simplify and automate your infrastructure deployment to scale resources so that you can benefit from the new technology without running short of resource or skills,” noted Caley. “We have many customers in research tackling large-scale data problems including CERN, Diamond Lightsource and Pacific Biosciences.”

Data Thriver Visual - 1200x562 copy edit

A single integrated landscape

So where does NetApp fit? As a data management specialist with a whole portfolio of products spanning storage devices and cloud software, it can offer HE organisations, and the wider public sector, a chance to build and significantly streamline their existing data processes. Unlike other vendors, which might bring in siloed capability, NetApp looks at the entire data pathway to create a hybrid cloud model with an integrated set of endpoints into which customers can place their data. The company then weaves these together to form a single integrated operational landscape that plugs any potential gaps in the cloud, allowing customers to trace where they placed their data and still applying all the necessary enterprise attributes to make sure it’s secured and protected.

“A hybrid cloud model is what we’re seeing as the model of choice, not just in universities but for pretty much all areas of business – because you want to have freedom of choice regarding data placement and management,” explained Caley.

The cost of change is the biggest barrier whenever you’re looking to do something new. At NetApp, they work to ensure they understand the environment that the customer has – helping them integrate into existing services, and thereby avoiding excessive change while allowing for the development of a migration plan to help get onto platforms that provide future freedom of choice and cost efficiencies. Options for data storage are kept open. Organisations can store data on-premise and in the cloud with certified providers such as Microsoft Azure or Amazon AWS. At the same time, customers are given mobility across cloud platforms to avoid being locked into any particular vendor.

“It’s about creating a landscape where you can move data across a data fabric and pick and choose where you want that data to be, based on the currency or the timeliness or whatever attribute the data requires,” Caley said.

“It might be a cost attribute, which makes it cheaper to store that data on Amazon, or it might be a performance attribute, which means you’re better off putting it into your own data centre. But if you don’t have the freedom of choice because you’re locked into a silo and don’t have a data fabric to enable you to get out of it, then you’re storing up challenges for the future, and recreating the technical debt you sought to avoid. These are capabilities that give you the flexibility of choice to not just reduce the cost of what you’re doing, but also to have the flexibility to change as required.”

A success story

The proof of the value of this approach is best demonstrated by universities that have already worked with NetApp to develop their strategies, such as City, University of London. A London-based HE institution with over 18,000 students, its core specialism is the provision of business education. City, University of London has undertaken an ambitious plan to attract more research and associated funding. Russell Best, its infrastructure operations manager, said the NetApp platform now underpins and drives the organisation’s growth plans.

“Working with NetApp has enabled us to create an agile infrastructure which we can effortlessly scale to meet the demands of increasingly complex research, while keeping control and predictability of costs. All of this has increased the simplicity and reduced the complexity and cost of management,” Best added.

 For Caley, the message is clear: if you are looking at ways through which your organisation can become more operationally efficient, but equally take advantage of the flexibility of the hybrid cloud, then NetApp is the provider of choice for data management.




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