July 9, 2014

Building an Inter-University Private Cloud with Open Source ownCloud


In late 2011, a lively discussion (we enjoy lively discussions here in Germany) among the IT managers of the publicly-funded research universities in Northrhine-Westfalia (NRW), Germany’s most populous federal state, started over a set of interrelated topics:

·         Endorsement or ban of public cloud services at universities: Since commercial, consumer-grade cloud services like Google Mail and Google Apps or Dropbox were growing in acceptance, also amongst researches at universities, we had to define our position on this issue. Should we endorse them as cost saving alternatives, e.g. for student mail accounts, or should we fight them, because we consider them insecure with respect to data privacy and confidentiality – a very serious matter in Germany in general and for research institutions in particular.

Raimund Vogl, director of IT at Münster University·         Need for regulation of researchers’ cloud service usage: When storing data from work (such as personal information on student work or confidential research results) in cloud services, researchers put themselves in peril of violating their office duties. But regulations imposed by a university banning the use of cloud services altogether for data protection reasons do not take into account the realities of research life – you have to be able to offer a convenient alternative. So this is what university IT service providers have to come up with.

·         Inter-university IT co-operation: With the science ministry boosting the universities’ autonomy by bailing out of direct involvement in university operations in 2007, self-organized cooperation was expected to save costs, improve quality and thereby justify the ministry’s move to grant this new freedom. Cost intensive IT projects especially were under scrutiny in times of dwindling budgets. But the discussion on possible scenarios for inter-university IT cooperation actually did stall in a quite early stage – since virtually all IT services used by university affiliates were already provided by local IT centers.

With the demand for an on-premise alternative to cloud storage services like Dropbox – a demand strongly articulated by both researchers and students, even back in 2011 long before the Edward Snowden NSA disclosures – things were different. This field was not covered yet, and here, the creation of an inter-university private cloud made perfect sense. So in Spring 2012, the council of university IT managers in NRW (ARNW) started a project for an inter-university sync & share cloud storage service and the IT center of Münster University (ZIV) was designated as the project lead.

An extensive market research and product evaluation started soon after. Even at this stage, in the summer of 2012, ownCloud, back then a complete newcomer to the open source scene, was seen as the most promising candidate for our project – envisioned to provide about 6 Petabyte of free-to-use cloud storage to 500,000 affiliates of more than 30 public research and applied science universities in NRW (the storage was ours, access to it comes via ownCloud).

For a project of this scale, with the investment of substantial public funding, an empirically well-founded decision-making process was indispensable. In collaboration with the Information Systems department of Münster University, extensive studies on user expectations, demands and projected adoption were carried out and will be continued throughout the upcoming 5 years of service operation for targeted marketing campaigns and continuous service improvement. Already, valuable scientific insights resulted from this and have been published:

  • We had a paper at ECIS 2014 (European Conference on Information Systems). The proceedings are open access and the link to our paper is here.
  • Just last week, we had a paper at HCII2014 in Session S104: "Cloud Storage Services in Higher Education – Results of a Preliminary Study in the Context of the Sync&Share-Project in Germany," Christian Meske, Stefan Stieglitz, Raimund Vogl, Dominik Rudolph, Ayten, Öksüz, University of Muenster, Germany.

As to the sync & share software solution, the continuous market research of nearly 2 years had shown that ownCloud developed well over time. By the time of final decision-making in April 2014, it featured a software suite that was almost complete for the demands articulated by our users – with ownCloud committed to provide the add-ons still missing for a 500,000 user setup and storage locations dispersed at three university IT centers across the state.

The open source nature of ownCloud was another important argument to see this product as singled out amongst its competitors and to directly award the contract without a public tendering process. Open source creates trust by ensuring users that there are no back doors and it gives confidence that the development of new desirable features will continue for at least the upcoming 5 years our service is scheduled to run – driven by a broad community of contributors, and possibly also through student and research projects from the universities participating.

After successfully completing a peer review in early 2014, mandatory to receive the substantial funding grant from the NRW ministry of science, the project is currently in the procurement phase, with the procurement of the scale-out storage platform still being in the public tendering process. We will be tracking our progress publicly and will report back here periodically.