Server space – cloud or on-campus?

Cloud storage is not the cure-all it is sometimes proposed to be. On-campus servers have some advantages in transmission speed and cost, especially as storage requirements grow considerably. Talk to your campus IT services before shelling out 90% of your R01 to Amazon to store your petabyte (PB) dataset.

Cloud storage is good for personal use. It makes switching to a new computer easy, or working on documents from many different devices, including mobile, seamless and easy. OneDrive has been working well in our hands (across OSX, iOS, Windows, Windows Phone, and Android), but we haven’t done an exhaustive comparison. It also makes setting up a new computer easy. No need to deal with documents at all. Just install the applications, the cloud client of choice, and then let it sync.

Cloud storage is also good for data sharing. It usually has good access control features and can be accessible from anywhere in the world, on multiple platforms.

However, cloud storage is not always ideal for data storage for a lab. Any cloud system is going to have a bottleneck between you and the cloud, and that bottleneck can be a significant limit. It can be significantly faster for me to download a TB of data from a server across campus, than from a server in another state. Moreover, while cloud file storage systems can be cheap for small applications (<1 TB), they can be expensive for larger data sets (e.g., ~$24k/year for 100 TB).

Instead, we use an on-campus server. The default options are sometimes competitive themselves, but it can be even cheaper if you buy the hardware, locate it in existing campus IT server space, and then pay them (campus IT) to manage it. It took some time and discussion, but our campus IT eventually realized that it’s pretty low-maintenance to administer our server. We buy the hardware, they put it online and swap out drives as they go bad. One reason it’s cheaper is because our demands are fairly low. We don’t need 99.9% uptime (that’s less than 9 hours of downtime per year), and although we do need someone on-call, we rarely use that help. Relaxing those constraints lets them set a flat fee and review it once per year. Of course, the university if also covering some of the overhead, and that helps too.

So take advantage of the IT infrastructure you already have on campus.

Also, if you can afford it, all-flash servers are probably the way to go. Pictured above is Intel’s “ruler” class of flash memory modules (SSDs) for servers. A goal is to squeeze 1 PB into 1 U of rack space.

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