Research IT / Enterprise IT

Posted by s.aragon on 31 May 2017 - 9:00am

Research IT, Enterprise ITBy Laurence Billingham, British Geological Survey, David Golding, University of Leeds, Robert Haines, University of Manchester, Martin Hammitzsch, German Research Centre for Geoscience, James Hetherington, University College London, Simon Hettrick, Software Sustainability Institute.

This post is part of the Collaborations Workshops 2017 speed blogging series.

Universities need to strike a balance between risk and strategic opportunities (world-class research and world-class teaching). A semi-independent "sandboxed" service for research IT can deliver both, by isolating the stuff that needs to change fast from the stuff that needs to always work.

In mobile development, apps are "sandboxed" so that one app cannot break the phone. This analogy can work for services too. In research-led universities, we need to strike a balance between risk and strategic opportunity - world-class research and world-class teaching. If you get this wrong, people will implement their own point solutions and make something that is risky anyway - likely riskier than a solution developed in collaboration. The same cultures and ways of working that ensure payroll will run efficiently and reliably do not best support the university’s success in the competitive research landscape.

A "sandboxed" Research IT service can help both address risk and enable opportunities to happen. This helps to isolate the things that need to change quickly from the things that need to always work. Research IT services should have the following key responsibilities:

  • Compute service for both compute-bound problems (HPC) and IO-bound problems (HTC).

  • Research Software Engineering service.

  • Research applications support service.

  • Quick, automated self-provisioning for virtual machines and containers for researchers.

  • Research data storage and archiving.

  • Research networks - fast networking bypassing enterprise firewalls for transport of bulk research data.

  • A space for processing confidential or sensitive research information.

  • Open access repositories for publications, data and software (possibly jointly with the Library service).

  • Training provision in digital methods for research.

  • Provide a point of access to other, external resources, such as regional, national and international compute facilities.

This only works if Research IT and Enterprise IT work well together. If you already have a Research IT function then they can be enabled by Enterprise IT in the following ways:

  • Research IT needs to change and act fast to support research, so they need Agile processes - less waterfall for change management, project management, and procurement.

  • Let Research IT staff lead on requirements analysis for research projects: ensuring that the requirements analysts understand research and can speak to researchers at this level.

  • Support cultures that encourage up-to-date technologies.

  • Be open to new systems and new ways of working.

In return, the Research IT service can help Enterprise IT with customer understanding, for projects that affect the researcher community at the organisation by providing an entry point into IT for people who speak the language, but also helps IT by speaking their language as well.

The flexibility of Research IT would enrich already established, well-defined and sometimes rigid processes and standard services of Enterprise IT with agile processes and on-demand services in a rapidly developing IT environment. A sandboxed Research IT would allow failures which then are intended to learn from and transfer newly developed IT knowledge and skills once new technologies and services have been tested with evolving solutions meeting the continuous demands of researchers. Sandboxed Research IT would enable a balance and good mix of:

  • core business vs unplanned requests

  • known and clear requirements vs vague wishes

  • standard processes vs relationship driven help and support

  • continuous support and service for maintenance vs one-time service for setting things up

  • no time for "customer" vs time for consulting to identify requests and requirements

  • SLA driven services vs services on good will basis without any guarantees

  • services covered by planned resources vs services covered by being thankful only

  • centralised v decentralised organisation of services

  • routine tasks vs cutting-edge technologies

Thus, Research IT may help in understanding of what IT is, what IT is able to deliver to support research, and how IT influences excellence and first class research. Research IT as an agile and flexible approach taking the time required to understand researchers and to instil IT concepts in researchers would help to ask the right questions for not losing people and being competitive with other universities and research institutes.