Imperial College London is a world-class university with a mission to benefit society through excellence in science, engineering, medicine and business. Delivering learning in fields that are powered by technology means that tech is, of course, firmly embedded in Imperial College’s DNA. STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects have dominated the employability tables for graduate salaries and career prospects, and as technology becomes intrinsic to every industry, institutions like Imperial will set the standard for all educators.
In addition to the specialized technology used by teachers and students in their fields of study, at Imperial, technology is rooted firmly in pedagogical strategy. Institution wide systems (such as virtual learning environments) help the college to cater to a diverse and growing student base and blended learning techniques help create engaging, collaborative and measurable learning experiences.
However, this commitment to digitally powered pedagogy means that Imperial College London is reliant on technology in order for its employees and students to function on a daily basis. It’s no exaggeration to say that ensuring that its tech provision is resilient and future-proofed is make or break for the university.
Paul Jennings, head of ICT service operations at Imperial College London tells us that when he joined in 2014, the college had underinvested in a vital piece of infrastructure – its data center. “Firstly, both of our data center facilities were situated on the same campus” he says. This “gave us an obvious single point of failure”.
And for Imperial this was a valid, and pressing, concern. The university had already suffered from a number of power outages, cooling and UPS failures, and even water damage from building work to its on-premise data center – incidents which didn’t just cause a temporary loss of service but had significant knock on effects to productivity and research.
The data center solution
The make or break nature of keeping its IT up and running proved to Imperial that the data center really did sit at the heart of its organization: vitally important to ensuring research, teaching and learning—and even relationships with suppliers and customers—could run smoothly.
So, in looking to overhaul its data center strategy, Imperial faced the perennial build vs. buy dilemma. The team knew, though, that outsourcing to a third colocation party provided the best protection against increasing data center complexity, cost and risk. And it was important that its expensive Kensington, London, location was used effectively. Instead, by relocating its data center provision, this space could be repurposed for teaching and learning—bringing immediate and significant benefits to students and staff alike.
For Imperial, the colocation option also addressed resilience, helping to address reliability concerns, helping increase and improve disaster recovery as well as support business continuity strategies—simply, when outsourcing with multiple connectivity options, the potential for carrier failure is reduced, protecting critical applications and infrastructure performance. Additionally—if disaster does strike—it’s these companies’ business to get you up and running again as quickly as possible. And, with resilience such a crucial tenet of success, the expertise of dedicated providers was compelling.
So to enhance availability, resilience, security, and importantly, to provide expansion for future growth, Imperial chose VIRTUS Data Centres to power its Data Centre Relocation project. The three-year program will move the college’s data center provision to new state-of-the art facilities in Slough. The Slough facility, LONDON4, offers scalable services designed to support high density computing and provides the flexibility, resilience, scalability and reliability that Imperial needs. It also provides simple and resilient access to public clouds for the ideal hybrid cloud solution location that Imperial is moving to towards for fast and reliable access.
The VIRTUS LONDON4 facility is part of a shared research institution framework agreement, brokered through Jisc, which ensured value for money. By using a data center contracted through a higher education framework, Imperial College is co-located with 23 university and research tenants including The Francis Crick Institute, University College London, University of Bristol and Kings College, affording opportunities for collaborative working. The data center also has a direct connection to the JANET network to provide fast, low cost connectivity for research collaboration.
Importantly, the partnership with VIRTUS has allowed Imperial to adopt an innovative approach to designing its architecture, built to include a multi zoned network—which separates its data centers on the network to vastly improve resilience.
The adoption challenge
Even with a digitally progressive team IT overhauls can be daunting. A move away from on premise infrastructure could have represented a loss of control for staff. And it was important that the team at Imperial recognized this was a cultural, not just a technical challenge—just as all of its tech use is driven by pedagogical goals, rather than IT ones.
Vital to the success of this project was ensuring that faculty knew that this move was not outsourcing IT, that it was more simply ‘Imperial’s data center, in a more resilient and secure facility’ as Paul Jennings puts it. And to stress the benefits to the institution, students, and the positive impact on the research community. Crucially, the team at Imperial was able to link the project back to teaching, research and learning objectives—and stress its role in the ability to provide a tech first approach to delivering education, with quality and uptime assurances.
About the Author:
Darren Watkins, Managing Director of VIRTUS Data Centres, began his career as a graduate Military Officer in the RAF before moving into the commercial sector. He brings more than 20 years experience in telecommunications and managed services gained at BT, MFS Worldcom, Level 3 Communications, Attenda and COLT. He joined the VIRTUS team from euNetworks where he was Head of Sales for the UK, leading market changing deals with a number of large financial institutions and media agencies, and growing the company’s expertise in low latency trading. Additionally, he sits on the board of one of the industry’s most innovative mobile media mdvertising companies, Odyssey Mobile Interaction, and is interested in all new developments in this sector. Darren has an honours degree in Electronic and Electrical Engineering from University of Wales, College Swansea.