HE’s secret fortress: a visit to the LONDON4 datacentre

Image: Shutterstock

On a humid, stuffy Friday afternoon, on a non-descript industrial estate just outside Slough, Wonkhe’s Louisa Darian and David Morris entered the most secure and well guarded building either of us had ever been in.

From the outside, this giant warehouse – with no signage or labelling on divulging its contents – looks completely uninteresting, like most buildings of similar size and shape on similar industrial estates in similar towns. The extent of the security measures appears completely unnecessary to the unsuspecting observer.

Any car outside the warehouse for more than a few moments has its registration number noted by cameras and a notice is sent to the personnel inside. At the entrance, you must provide a form of identification in order to receive a pass. If the pass is used on an incorrect door, an alarm is set off. In order to get into the interior of the facility, you must have an authorised pass, a pin code, a valid fingerprint, and be approved by the facial recognition cameras. If you’re keen to break in, chopping off someone else’s finger won’t work – the finger must have a live pulse. You then proceed through a ‘man-trap’ to get inside. You can’t try forcing your way in with a vehicle; the flimsy-looking perimeter fence can withstand a truck at 40 mph.

Source: Virtus
Source: Virtus

We have both visited very secure buildings before: airports, the Houses of Parliament, government departments, several tourist attractions in London. What on earth in the world of higher education would justify these astonishing levels of security?

This is the highly sophisticated LONDON4 datacentre owned by tech-company Virtus, home to data and computing hardware of 17 universities (a number that is rapidly increasing). It is also a hub on the Jisc-owned ‘Janet’ network of fibre-optic cables that has served the higher education and research sector since 1982. Virtus has agreed a shared datacentre framework with Jisc to encourage more institutions to move to a remote, co-location solution for data-storage in research and education.

For IT-ignoramuses like us, it is all too easy to forget that all the intangible aspects of modern IT and communications that we rely upon need a very tangible ‘home-base’. Higher education is now completely reliant on IT and computing to function: for storing research findings, student and staff data, communication within and between universities, high-performance data crunching, and so much more. How this is all managed is a substantial logistical and policy challenge for many universities and research institutes. Over the past few years, many institutions have undergone a transformative upgrade in how they deal with these challenges.

A new kind of safe space

Many spy, thriller and action films have depicted the importance of physical computing security. Data can be stolen from hardware and network cables with small devices not much more sophisticated than a pen drive. With cyber-security and intellectual property set to be ever more imperative concerns in the coming decades, universities will be an increasingly juicy targets for cyber-criminals seeking valuable data and information. But it is not only security that is a priority of organisations that rely on IT networks to function. Reliability is also an imperative. Any reader who has suffered the frustration of a campus network failure will understand why: a network failure on the weekend before dissertation deadlines can through an entire institution into chaos.

VIRTUS-Security
Source: Virtus

University estates are typically far from ideal places for modern IT infrastructure, and yet are incredibly reliant upon it to deliver their services. Many universities are housed in 1960s concrete jungles, 19th century redbricks, and some in ancient gothic towers, castles and much more besides. Such facilities rarely have the required space for cabling, air conditioning and security required to wire up modern computer systems. Furthermore, space on many university estates is at a premium. Staff need offices, labs and classrooms to perform their work, and the increasing sophistication of IT equipment only takes up more and more of this prime real-estate, particularly for city-centre institutions.

A common sight on many university campuses. Source: John Albert, Imperial College London
Source: John Albert, Imperial College London

Up until relatively recently, many universities had developed their IT infrastructure in a very piecemeal fashion. Computers would be squeezed in here and there; air conditioning units would be hastily improvised; cabling would grow and grow until only the longest serving IT technicians would be able to work out what on earth was going on. Situations like the one in this picture were, and still are, not uncommon.

Moving core computing functions off site to specialist centres thus has significant advantages. This has been identified by several institutions and by Jisc, which has put together a datacentre sharing framework with Virtus on behalf of higher education and research institutions. With six institutions originally opting in, over a dozen more have joined the framework and moved some or all of their servers off site. This has brought a new peace of mind of reliability, security, safety and space for many institutions. The economy of scale also helps keep down costs, and collaborating has relieved participating universities of the need to make precise forecasts about their own future capacity needs. There will always be scope for scaling up.

In a specialist space such as this, all necessary steps are taken to prevent any possible threats to the ongoing operation of the equipment hosted on the site. A loud whirring sound signifies the powerful air conditioning keeping computers at an optimum temperature of 24 degrees. The air con, combined with sticky floors at door entrances, also prevents dust getting into microchips.

There is also no possibility of a power failure shutting everything down. Aside from being located less than a mile from a power station, the datacentre hosts its own generators – previously housed on warships – capable of providing power for over 100,000 households. In the event of a power outage, the generators would power up automatically within 15 seconds and deliver 11,000 volts of electricity. This extraordinary amount of power is essential when supporting large quantities of high performance computers, which may use up to thirty times the amount of power required for the average household. For some of LONDON4’s other tenants, which include companies in financial services, any downtime could cost millions and millions of pounds, so absolutely no chances are being taken.

With this security, climate control, technology and power backup, we know where we will be going in the event of the apocalypse.

Source: Virtus
Source: Virtus

In each ‘datahall’ are rows and rows of computer stacks whirring away. The amount of heat generated is striking in those sections that are not directly having air conditioning blown through the floor. We are shown computer systems belonging to Imperial College London, UCL, the Institute for Cancer Research, and the Crick and Sanger institutes. Stored within the machines are thousands and thousands of Gigabytes vital data that universities rely upon everyday, from the latest findings of research into the human genome, to corporate IT data for human resources and student timetables and virtual learning environments.

Introducing Janet

The Slough datacentre is also one of several hubs for the Janet network, managed by Jisc, upon which the entirety of the UK university and research community relies for network connectivity. Janet is unique in being a UK-wide private network used exclusively by education and research institutions; very few other industries are fortunate enough to have such an exclusive infrastructure.

Janet was established in 1982 and is arguably the strongest case of the higher education sector demonstrating considerable strategic foresight and collaboration to create a vast infrastructure of over 5,000km of cable before the internet began to take off. Millions of higher education staff and students use the services it provides everyday completely unaware of how it has come together. Having a private network has ensured that educators, researchers and students are never short of network speed and capacity as IT and the internet become ever more indispensable to the everyday life of universities.

Big data, big opportunities, big challenges

A recent report by the Higher Education Commission highlighted the massive opportunities for universities the take advantage of new forms of data collection and analytics. Much of the politics of the sector is already driven by data, such as debates of the relative merits of the TEF, REF, NSS and DLHE. Like it or loathe it, we are moving to an increasingly data-driven world and higher education will have to adapt to this more structured information environment.

With data and information comes the need for storage, security and reliability. What we were shown at LONDON4 in Slough offered an impressive solution to the problems presented by on-campus data management, and could free-up university IT teams to grasp more strategic opportunities created by data analytics. The sheer scale of the infrastructure required certainly caught our attention, but the true beauty of it is that most of users of its services can go about their business without giving a thought to it at all.

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