Business challenge

To maintain its reputation as a premier research institution, the University of Birmingham must ensure data is always available to a growing number of users running increasingly complex simulations.

Transformation

The university deployed IBM® Spectrum Scale™ and IBM Spectrum Protect™, increasing transparency around data’s location and who accesses it, and increasing its mobility within a diverse IT environment.

Results

Supports

compliance with data protection regulations at low cost and without disruption

Up to 2 FTEs

estimated saving due to enhanced operational efficiency

5,000 researchers

supported by infrastructure that helps them find solutions to key issues faster

Business challenge story

Confronting big data

Research tackles the big questions, delving into uncharted territory in pursuit of knowledge that could change the world. To do their work effectively, many researchers run highly complex computing simulations, which produce or use vast amounts of data. This data must be stored where it can be accessed readily, both by users working on the project and people looking to verify and build on results in the future.

The University of Birmingham, a major research destination in the UK, is very familiar with these challenges. The organization provides Birmingham Environment for Academic Research (BEAR), a collection of IT resources available at no cost to its community and qualified external researchers.

Simon Thompson, Research Computing Infrastructure Architect at the University of Birmingham, explains: “Our engagement team is continually attracting new users to our facilities, which is great for the university, but means that my team needs to make the right infrastructure decisions to ensure that we can meet demand.”

The Research Computing team realized that it lacked a central provision for data, preventing the university from harnessing it to its full potential and introducing risks around compliance.

“Before, it was common for people to store data on their personal hard drives or USB sticks,” recalls Thompson. “As their and our intellectual property, we wanted to make sure that data was available to other users in a way that aligned with data protection guidelines. We began looking for a new approach to data storage that would enable us to address these challenges and act on emerging opportunities.”

Breakthroughs in a range of fields are happening all the time at the university. Underpinning all of this pioneering innovation, IBM Spectrum Storage solutions make sure that the data is there, whenever our researchers need it.

—Simon Thompson, Research Computing Infrastructure Architect, University of Birmingham

Transformation story

Offering researchers the best tools

The University of Birmingham selected IBM Spectrum Scale as the mainstay of its new software-defined storage environment, working with IBM Gold Business Partner OCF to select, procure and support the deployment of the technology. With IBM Spectrum Scale, the university’s relatively lean Research Computing team can provide rapid access to live data and long-term archiving capabilities across a diverse storage environment.

“We’ve relied on IBM solutions to support our computing clusters for many years now, so choosing Spectrum Scale for software-defined storage was a natural choice,” says Thompson. “It gives us a single data management plane across our many different storage systems, allowing us to make price-performance decisions when matching workloads to platforms, without complexity spiraling out of control. Our framework agreement with OCF helps us get the best technology at competitive prices, and we trust their recommendations.”

Using the active file management (AFM) capability of IBM Spectrum Scale, the University of Birmingham can serve its heterogenous compute environment with a homogenous, scalable, multi-site and multi-protocol storage platform. Today, data is available across clusters automatically, allowing researchers to deploy applications where it makes sense and immediately have data available to them. With AFM, one version of data is consistent across multiple storage systems, providing the consistency that is so critical to successful scientific study.

When the University of Birmingham added a third on-site data center to its infrastructure, IBM Spectrum Scale played a key role in enabling a smooth transition to the new environment. Thompson comments: “With Spectrum Scale providing HA and DR capabilities, we were able to move the data out from under our users’ feet while bringing the third data center online – they didn’t even notice it was happening.”

Recently, the University of Birmingham teamed up with OCF again to move to IBM Spectrum Scale Data Management Edition. The change means that the Research Computing department benefits from new capabilities and a different licensing model. Thompson says: “With the Data Management Edition, we can encrypt data at rest, helping us meet new requirements around securing data that is sensitive for commercial or other reasons. We’ve switched to capacity-based licensing, which is proving much simpler to manage and clears the path to cloud and virtual deployments.”

To back up data, the University of Birmingham relies on IBM Spectrum Protect™. The Research Computing team plans to use the Transparent Cloud Tiering (TCT) feature that comes with IBM Spectrum Scale Data Management Edition to enable cost-effective long-term storage for cooler data. Thompson adds: “With TCT, we can use cloud object storage as a transparent storage tier natively integrated within Spectrum Scale, giving us a low-risk, easy path to cloud.”

Spectrum Scale gives us unprecedented insight into who is using data and how, which we can use to meet reporting requirements and ensure correct processes are followed.

—Simon Thompson, Research Computing Infrastructure Architect, University of Birmingham

Results story

Pushing the boundaries of knowledge

The University of Birmingham’s investments in research infrastructure are paying off: its facilities play host to a range of exciting research projects. By supporting research teams with the cutting-edge infrastructure that they need to excel, the university helps them achieve results faster, while enhancing its standing as a destination for the world’s brightest minds.

“We support research in a wide range of areas including applying and developing techniques to use AI and deep learning,” explains Thompson. “For example, we’re collaborating with the University of Nottingham on the Centre of Membrane Proteins and Receptors [COMPARE] project. By analyzing the super high-resolution images produced by the latest generations of microscopes, the project will shed light on how cardiovascular disease, respiratory disorders and cancer can be better prevented and treated. We’ve also joined Health Data Research UK, which focuses on developing and applying cutting-edge data science approaches to enable more efficient and accurate diagnostics.

“A research team is using our facilities to tackle an area where HPC [high-performance computing] hasn’t typically been applied: linguistics. They’re using textual analysis to understand how the most translated text of all time – the Bible – has changed over the centuries, and what this can teach us about language and culture. The university recently became part of The Alan Turing Institute, which is the UK institute for data science and AI, which aims to bring together researchers with different skill sets. Underpinning all of this pioneering innovation, IBM Spectrum Storage solutions make sure that the data is there, whenever Birmingham’s researchers need it.”

The University of Birmingham now has greater control over data than ever before, enabling it to make the most of this invaluable resource while complying with emerging regulations easily and cost-effectively.

“Through audit logging, Spectrum Scale gives us unprecedented insight into who is using data and how, which we can use to meet reporting requirements and ensure correct processes are followed,” says Thompson. “Best of all, this can happen with minimal disruption to our users and without impacting our budget too much. We estimate that simplified operations enabled by IBM Spectrum solutions have allowed us to extend our HPC environment without adding to our management team, saving as much as two FTEs [full-time employees].”

Equipped with IBM Spectrum Storage™ solutions, the University of Birmingham has multiple layers of protection against data loss, ensuring that researchers can always access the information they require. As the university continues to push the limits of HPC capabilities, the technology helps the Research Computing team use resources to their full potential.

Thompson concludes: “We are about to implement new IBM POWER9 processor-based servers to support AI projects, this will be the largest PowerAI deployment in the UK and is part of a collaboration with IBM to help skill our researchers to use the systems. To get the most out of them, we are planning to purchase extremely high-performance storage systems. The ability to add new resources seamlessly and serve them to our users transparently with help from Spectrum Scale is crucial.”

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About University of Birmingham

Established by Queen Victoria in 1900, the University of Birmingham is one of the largest universities in the UK, serving approximately 34,000 undergraduate and graduate students. The university’s Computer Centre is the centerpiece of the Birmingham Environment for Academic Research (BEAR), a collection of IT resources available without cost to the University of Birmingham community and qualified external researchers.

Take the next step

To learn more about IBM Spectrum Storage solutions, please contact your IBM representative or IBM Business Partner, or visit the following website: ibm.com/storage/spectrum

To learn more about IBM Power Systems™ solutions, please contact your IBM representative or IBM Business Partner, or visit the following website: ibm.com/power

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