Jan 182012

On the face of it, the data storage needs of researchers at University of Hertfordshire are generally well provided for within our ‘local cloud’.

The case for this statement is as follows:

  • all staff have a personal allocation of secure, robust, networked storage, accessible on and off campus (U:drive)
  • all staff have access to similar shared networked storage associated with their department or school of study (S:drive)
  • additional shared space, with access limited to a research group or centre, is available on request (R:drive)
  • all reasonable requests for storage resources from researchers who do not have the support of a specialist facility, can be, and are, supported

Nevertheless, the discussion we have had so far with researchers indicates that take-up of this centralised offer is poor. There are, as you might expect, many reasons for this picture. A few researchers are simply not aware they possess a notional 5GB of networked storage. A few don’t think to ask or don’t know who to ask about extending their provision. More common though, is the situation where people do not use their facility because of usability issues. These issues are sometimes real but often just perceived.

The distinction between those researchers who have real challenges and those with no good reason for not using their secure storage is largely to do with machine configuration. There are the ‘haves’ and ‘haves nots’, or perhaps the ‘enabled’ and the ‘not so well enabled’. Staff using university owned Windows machines configured with Novell networking are in the ‘have’ group, as are the minority group of Mac OSX users. Anyone else is a ‘have not’. These include a significant number of Windows users who are not setup with Novell; people who use their own pc’s and laptops, often at home (and actually contravene university policy by doing so); and users of devices running operating systems other than desktop Windows or OSX.

For the ‘haves’, almost all the usability issues are perceived rather than real, and could be overcome with a small amount of assistance. For the ‘have nots’ there are real, but not insurmountable, issues to deal with. In both cases RDTK, the Research Data ToolKit, will address the barriers with improved guidance and training. The first cut of this advice will be generated soon and included on this site.

Even with these new interventions there remains a significant barrier to widespread use of the existing networked storage for good research data management (RDM) for projects which need to share data beyond the staff network. Research is mostly collaborative, and the collaboration may include UH research staff and UH research students, and often, external partners as well. In terms of the discussion above, Students and Externals fall into a third group who are the ‘even less well enabled’. The demands of security and authentication place this group apart from the private network on which staff storage is located. As a result they can not share working data across the university network without special and exceptional measures.

The extent to which the University’s network infrastructure can bend to meet the needs of research without impacting on all its other core user communuities is limited. Many research data management scenarios need more flexible arrangements. In this context, the provision of cloud services being considered by the RDTK project looks more and more important. In addition to on-demand and cost effective resources, the commercial cloud may be equally important to solving the ‘edge case’ of secure collaborative working by multi-organisational groups, which is required by a lot of research.

Having discussed our facilities with colleagues from other institutions we seem to compare well; so – through a glass half full – I think the University’s network storage facilities are good and have the capacity to improve many RDM scenarios. It is the job of the Research Data ToolKit to spread this message, and then go further to demonstrate solutions for needs that go beyond U:, S: and R: