February 2015

From anechoic chambers to wind tunnels, mass spectrometers to supercomputers, institutions are increasingly looking to share high value items of research equipment. Martin Hamilton outlines how Jisc is working with a variety of partners to help embed and accelerate asset sharing.

[This piece originally appeared on Efficiency Exchange in February 2015]

In this article I will look at three areas where Jisc, with partners including BIS, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), HEFCE and Innovate UK, is helping to reduce the friction of asset sharing, between institutions and also with industry.

We are doing this by:

  • Working with EPSRC to make the details of more than £200m worth of high value equipment available for sharing between institutions and with industry.
  • Piloting standard terms and conditions for access to £60m of publicly funded supercomputing facilities and expertise.
  • Providing support for industrial connectivity to the Janet network at speeds of up to 10 Gigabits/second for collaborative R&D projects.

Kit-Catalogue - your "one stop shop" for equipment data

Kit-Catalogue is a piece of free software that lets an institution quickly and easily set up its own equipment database, and also provides a data feed of shared items into the EPSRC funded national portal equipment.data.ac.uk.

An example of a typical Kit-Catalogue page from University College London - here showing the one-of-a-kind Lighting Simulator at The Bartlett, UCL's Faculty for the Built Environment.

Jisc and EPSRC originally funded the development of the Kit-Catalogue software, and I am delighted that we are once again working with the Kit-Catalogue team to explore its potential as a Jisc service, including gathering data on running costs and institutional benefits that will help to inform the business case.

With support from HEFCE, we are piloting Kit-Catalogue with ten institutions over a two-year period and also supporting the continued development of the software as part of this initiative.

One particular new development that I am very pleased with is our Kit-Catalogue app, available from the Google Play Store for Android devices.

Two screenshots from the Kit-Catalogue Android app

The output from Kit-Catalogue contributes (along with other data sources) to the national equipment sharing portal, equipment.data, which makes the details of some 10,000 items of high value research equipment available for sharing. With an conservative average value of £20K-£25K per item, then the total value of equipment being shared is at least £200m. Newcastle University alone is sharing more than 814 items of equipment valued at £20K or above, with a combined value of more than £16m.

Frictionless supercomputing - £60m of public investment in HPC

Before joining Jisc, I set up and then ran EPSRC's HPC Midlands regional supercomputing centre of excellence, a collaboration between Loughborough University and the University of Leicester.

During the course of this work it became increasingly apparent that businesses - and also many higher education institutions - were keen to explore a pay-as-you-go model for access to high performance computing and big data facilities, but required formal contractual assurances around service provision. Information security and protection of intellectual property was a key concern. For example, HPC Midlands industrial users required that we destroy any failed disk drives rather than returning to the vendor for replacement.

To address these requirements, we worked with Rolls Royce to develop a standardised contract and pro forma covering data security and information assurance, aligned with ISO 27001 standards. I brought this with me to Jisc and with support from HEFCE we subsequently reached agreement with HPC Midlands, HPC Wales, N8 HPC and STFC DiRAC that they would offer their services under this basis. This landmark agreement opens up £60m of publicly funding supercomputing facilities for institutions and industry to access as shared services. I hope that we will be able to extend this approach to other classes of equipment, building on both this work and the Brunswick Agreements.

Here is a powerful example from HPC Midlands customers E.ON of the potential that industry access to academic facilities and expertise can have:

"We ran the gas turbine simulation with a number of different parameter sets and observed speed-ups of between 30 and 145 times the performance of the in-house system based on workstation class PC" - Lionel Mazzella, E.ON New Build & Technology

Gas turbine simulation, CC BY-NC-SA E.ON UK Plc

Janet Reach - ultrafast connectivity to the Janet network for industry

Most of today's research equipment is data intensive, none more so than supercomputing and big data applications. Back in my days of running a supercomputer centre it was not unusual for customers to bring their data over on a hard drive, because connectivity was poor or non-existent between industry and the research and education sector. Whilst this worked well for local firms, and provided a useful opportunity to catch up over a coffee, there was clearly no way that this approach could scale.

In parallel, Jisc has received £4m as part of a package of e-Infrastructure funding from the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) to support greater interaction between businesses and academia in the e-Infrastructure environment. One component of this is a scheme, Janet Reach, to support high-capacity business connections to the Janet Network in the context of innovative R&D collaboration with academic partners to exploit the e-Infrastructure resources they host and manage.

This is another area where I believe that we can act together to give today's data-driven businesses a significant leap forward in capability. Just think what a high-capacity connection at up to 10 Gigabits/second to Janet could do to accelerate your R&D collaborations.

Details of the first awards under Janet reach will be made available shortly, but from what I am hearing, I think we will see a good spread of connections from startups and micro-SMEs to major UK firms.

The Janet Reach scheme runs until August 2015 as a series of calls modelled on the Innovate UK competition process. The latest call for proposals deadline is 28th February 2015 - we'd love to hear from you.

Find out more

Jisc's Kit-Catalogue pilot and frictionless supercomputing initiative are part of our R&D programme. Martin Hamilton will also be appearing at University UK's annual Efficiency Conference on 25 March in a workshop on equipment sharing.

To learn more about the Reach scheme and industrial connectivity to Janet more broadly, please see the Janet Reach homepage.

Universities and colleges have a vast amount of equipment at their disposal and rich seams of talent and expertise that can be mined. Sharing those resources with other institutions and with business opens up new opportunities to boost the UK's technology sectors.

[This piece originally appeared on the Jisc blog in February 2015]

CrowdEmotion demo their emotion recognition software at the Digital Catapult launch,
CC-BY Paul Clarke for the Digital Catapult

If like me you are a child of the 1970s and 80s, you probably grew up surrounded by the first wave of the tech revolution - personal computers, video games consoles, and all sorts of other home electronics. But then something went horribly wrong, and those promising ideas and the firms behind them largely disappeared. Of course what happened was IBM's PC and Apple's Macintosh, which quickly gathered a global momentum that many of the early pioneers were unable to compete with.

But how does a promising new invention go from the research labs at a college or a university into full production and shipping? All too often the answer in the UK has been that it doesn't hence the popular view of us as a nation of inventors who allow other people to realise our ideas. But it doesn't have to be that way as counter-examples Dyson and ARM prove.

Lend me your ARM

In 2010 the then Secretary of State Peter Mandelson commissioned Acorn and ARM co-founder, Dr Hermann Hauser to advise the government on ways to support the commercialisation of UK research. Hauser recommended the establishment of Technology and Innovation Centres to bring academia and industry together in a similar way to Germany's Fraunhofer Institutes.

Catapult Centres (are) a physical base for R&D collaborations between businesses and academia, equipped with state of the art facilities and expertise

The recommendations have subsequently been acted on through the coalition government's Catapult Centres, a physical base for R&D collaborations between businesses and academia, equipped with state of the art facilities and expertise.

An initial seven Catapult Centres were set up under the auspices of Innovate UK, with two more set to launch this year:

Pooling resources to maximise the benefits

My own involvement with Innovate UK and the Catapult network began back in 2012 when I set up the HPC Midlands regional supercomputer centre for the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

I found that computer-based modelling and simulation was already either an essential part of the workflow for many businesses, or something they had identified as a key future requirement. But often, the most advanced computing capability that the firm had was a high specification workstation that might take days or even weeks to complete a routine task.

For me the defining moment came in working with E.ON, which had a powerful in-house workstation cluster of its own. We determined that use of our facilities could speed up E.ON's modelling and simulation jobs, such as the gas turbine simulation pictured, by a factor of 30 to 145.

Working with more and more businesses, we found that this kind of dramatic reduction in "time to solution" was often possible. In some cases firms found that the impact on their bottom line was so significant that they were prepared to move their entire simulation workload onto our supercomputer.

Thus began my work exploring how to make facilities like HPC Midlands 
more accessible to industry.

There is a wide range of equipment held by universities and colleges that is also of value to business

When we are talking about a small island like the UK, it makes sense for us to take a serious look at pooling our resources. There is a wide range of equipment held by universities and colleges that is also of value to business.

Say you're designing a new turbine blade. Once you have tested virtual models of your design, the next stage might be to use additive manufacturing like 3D printing to create a physical prototype, and then carry out wind tunnel tests. And when the first pre-production models arrive, you might want to use a mass spectrometer for materials characterisation and verify the integrity of the manufacturing process.

The combination of the facility plus the expert skills to operate it and interpret the results can make a huge difference.

On joining Jisc I realised that we are in an ideal position to complement the work of the Catapults

On joining Jisc I realised that we are in an ideal position to complement the work of the Catapults by making equipment held by colleges and universities easier to find, and by reducing the friction of sharing those facilities and that expertise.

What are we doing already?

And so to our work. We are brokering common terms and conditions for access to HPC facilities. We now have four major HPC centres offering their services through our common terms and conditions - HPC Midlands, HPC Wales, N8 HPC and STFC DiRAC. Together, these represent £60m of public investment in supercomputing, for institutions to share and industry to access.

We now have four major HPC centres offering their services through
our common terms and conditions

Looking to the future we are also piloting Kit-Catalogue, a piece of software that lets an institution quickly and easily put up a database of the equipment that it holds, as a simple sharing idea.

Our ten pilot sites are feeding into EPSRC's one stop shop for equipment sharing, equipment.data, which holds the details of some 10,000 items of high value equipment. Newcastle University alone is sharing over 814 items valued at £20,000 or more, with a combined value of over £16m, and we estimate the total value of publicly funded equipment being shared by the sector at over £200m.

Find out more

For more on these initiatives visit the project page on equipment sharing, watch our video or contact me.