Virtual services with real benefits

Three universities explain why they use SWITCHengines and SWITCHdrive.

Text: Jens-Christian Fischer, published on 04.03.2016

Imagine starting up 100 virtual servers in an instant so that you can run a complex simulation for an hour, or providing tens of thousands of users with a place to store and share millions of files. These are just two examples of what can be done with virtual infrastructure from SWITCH, but there are many more possibilities. SWITCH added SWITCHengines and SWITCHdrive to its service portfolio a year ago with a view to lightening universities’ workload in some key areas.

SWITCHdrive is a platform running on Swiss servers for synchronising and sharing documents. SWITCHengines offers virtual machines hosted in the data centres of two Swiss universities with capacities scalable at the touch of a button, making it ideal for fixed-term projects in teaching and research.

So how are SWITCH clients using these services? We asked three universities why they use them and what benefits they bring. The responses we receive from researchers and IT staff alike show that the ways in which universities have been using SWITCHdrive and SWITCHengines so far are nowhere near testing their limits. There is huge potential for further tailor-made services.

SWITCHengines, Anthony Boulmier: "SWITCHengines delivers high performance."
SWITCHdrive, Guillaume Lefebvre and Christopher Greiner: "We don’t need to build and host that service."
SWITCHengines, Martin Sutter: "A BYOD environment offering a level playing field for everyone."




"SWITCHengines delivers high performance."

Anthony Boulmier, assistant at Haute Ecole du paysage, d’ingénierie et d’architecture (HEPIA) in Geneva


For what purposes are you using SWITCHengines?
Anthony Boumier:
I am working on the iCeBOUND project aimed at creating a decision-support system by harnessing 3D data to facilitate environmental analsyses in urban areas. The primary objective of this system is to be able to estimate the quantity of solar energy that could be generated by a roof over a given period. The time to compute real world data can take up to two hours on 40 machines. We do not have any such infrastructure at our institution.

Why solve this task using SWITCHengines?
It is almost self-evident to turn to the Cloud when there is a need to use a large number of machines, on demand, for such purposes as high performance computing.
We use several infrastructures because it is very important to compare, in terms of performance and price, the main solutions available in Switzerland as well as the leading Cloud service providers such as Amazon, Microsoft or Google. One of our objectives within the framework of our projects is to be able to compare the run times of a single algorithm on different major infrastructures.

How exactly do you use SWITCHengines?
We use SWITCHengines firstly to provide resources to our students to allow them to create their own run-time environment. Secondly, we build clusters of machines with the objective of running, in a distributed manner, applications requiring enormous computational resources. On SWITCHengines, we currently have a cluster of 41 machines dedicated to running HPC applications and one machine dedicated to managing the launching of calculations.

How much capacity are you using and how much do you expect to use in the future?
For the iCeBOUND project, we use a total of more than 400 GB of RAM and 80 processors for our computing cluster. In the near future, we are going to take several other measures of performance on the same project using different test parameters.

What do you appreciate specifically about SWITCHengines?
Two of the many advantages of SWITCHengines are access to the platform thanks to SWITCHaai as well as the system's great flexibility.

Are other projects on SWITCHengines already in the forecast?
At the moment, we haven't really planned on using SWITCHengines for any other projects. But this service will be taken into account for other projects.

Is there anything else that is special about SWITCHengines?
Overall, the service offers high performance. During our comparative measures phase with the iCeBOUND project, we could see that SWITCHengines is generally at least as efficient as Amazon Web Services.


"We don't need to build and host that service."

Christopher Greiner, analyst developer at the University of Lausanne (photo)
Guillaume Lefebvre, support coordinator at the University of Lausanne

Can you tell us about the problem that led to using SWITCHdrive?
Guillaume Lefebvre, Christopher Greiner: We offer a service called DocUNIL, which is basically file sharing with Web Distributed Authoring and Versioning and FTP via Microsoft's Internet Information Services with file upload, download and management capabilities. We automatically create a 1 GB space for all of our users, currently around 22,000. A number of users have turned to alternatives, such as Dropbox or Google Drive, but these go against our IT service policies, which stipulate that data must be stored in Switzerland. We therefore realised that DocUNIL is no longer adequate. We aim to end this service by the end of 2016 and will be recommending SWITCHdrive to our users.

Why aren't you using infrastructure provided by your institution?
SWITCHdrive's interface is easy to use and offers 25 GB. On top of that, we would have certainly chosen the same software solution as SWITCHdrive (ownCloud), but the sharing community would have been mainly restricted to UNIL users, and it would also have meant building a new and complex infrastructure in order to host that service.

How is SWITCHdrive being used?
We identified two main use cases: synchronising the work computer with the personal computer in order to work anywhere and collaborating in small teams or loose groups.

For bigger or more organised teams or for larger storage space requirements, we still propose a traditional sharing solution using network-assisted storage.

What size capacity are you using? What are your future plans?
We have created about 850 accounts so far. The announcement of the end of our DocUNIL service will certainly lead to an increase in the number of SWITCHdrive users.

Is there something specifically good about SWITCHdrive that offers added value from your point of view?
Our current solution doesn't allow our users to share files with people outside our institution. A real plus is also that they can now easily revert to a previous version of a file. The main non-technical advantage is that we can offer our users an academically based, Swiss-hosted service. That's very important for us in legal terms. From an IT service perspective, it is obviously a big plus that we don't need to maintain an infrastructure.

Is there anything else you'd like to say about the service?
For now, we are quite happy with the service, with only about 20 tickets concerning SWITCHdrive in our helpdesk ticketing system. The main limitation of SWITCHdrive is certainly that it's only user-oriented and doesn't have the notion of groups. It implies for projects or teams that a person needs to host the team or project files in their own account. When the «host» leaves, the files need to be transferred to another account.

One user proposed a use case that we have included in our documentation: using SWITCHdrive to host Zotero bibliographical references using the WebDAV protocol.



"A BYOD environment offering a level playing field for everyone."

Martin Sutter, Head of IT, Swiss Distance University of Applied Sciences

What problem do you face?
Martin Sutter: As a distance-learning university, we don't have any computer rooms for our students. We have a "bring your own device" approach. The disadvantage of this is that it's hard to ensure a level playing field for all students in some software environments, for instance when it comes to completing exercises.

Why did you choose SWITCHengines to solve this?
It's an elegant, fast and straightforward way to build an individual operating system and development environment, complete with applications, that's identical for all students. This simplifies practical exercises – in some cases, they wouldn't even be possible otherwise.

Where and how do you use SWITCHengines?
SWITCHengines is explicitly included, for example, in the Installation and Configuration of Server Services (ICSS) module of the Bachelor of Science in IT course. Following an introduction into how it works, students install SWITCHengines themselves and learn how to use it to run server systems, back up data and virtualise servers. They also do coursework, certification and tests on it, such as configuring a server.

What sort of capacity do you need, and what are your plans for the future?
At present, about 100 students attend the ICSS module every year, and each of them gets to set up two virtual machines. Several other modules also recommend SWITCHengines.

What do you like most about SWITCHengines?
The fact that it allows us to treat all students fairly and that it's so easy to set up and run.

Is there anything else you would like to say about the service?
I'm glad that we're being offered new ways to obtain the services we need. We've barely used SWITCHengines for productive systems up to now, so it's cost-effective to run.

Can you imagine using SWITCHengines for other purposes?
Absolutely. Instead of just recommending SWITCHengines in other modules, we could officially adopt it. Our Learning Center and Institute for Research in Open, Distance and eLearning need additional instances for research and testing, and SWITCHengines could also be useful in connection with the learning platform Moodle.

This article appeared in the SWITCH Journal March 2016.
About the author
Jens-Christian   Fischer

Jens-Christian Fischer

Jens-Christian Fischer has worked at SWITCH since 2013 – first as a Cloud Engineer, now as a ‘Managed Applications and Services’ Team Leader. He has many years of experience with agile project methods in both software and service development.

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