How the University of Bristol is supporting its academics with a multi-cloud approach

Mark Samuels Profile picture for user Mark Samuels November 21, 2023
The educational institution has rolled out the VMware Cloud Foundation.

Bristol University

The University of Bristol is using VMware Cloud Foundation to support a multi-cloud approach that’s powering collaboration across its global research community.

Keith Woolley, Chief Digital Information Officer at the University of Bristol, says he started thinking about a fresh approach to technology when he joined the institution in 2019. This involved a digital strategy based on boundary-less education and research, which included a technology platform to allow students, researchers and academics to collaborate securely from anywhere around the globe:

We knew we were going to have many challenges, so we started thinking, ‘What does boundary-less actually mean?’ Especially in an organization that has multiple collaborations on a worldwide stage. My challenge was that I needed to find a way to operate with all the different cloud providers, not just a single provider.

The IT team looked at a range of technological solutions from vendors, identifying VMware Cloud Foundation (VCF) platform as a potential solution, Woolley explains:

The VCF platform has this ambition and capability to operate as a multi-cloud provider in a single environment that allows me to not have to worry about the technology stacks of different providers.

Wooley and the IT team already had experience of VMware technology. Woolley had used it in his previous roles, while the university was already using VMware’s NSX hypervisor technology. With the decision made to adopt VCF, the next challenge was migration. Wooley recalls: 

I took a very safe option. Rather than migrating my complete operating model, I looked at what I was really wanting to do with a multi-cloud foundation. I wanted to provide tangible technology to our academic community. I wanted them to be able to operate in a self-serve environment on any cloud.

To avoid disrupting existing business operations, Woolley and his team created a new capabilities service in 2020. They built a prototype VCF environments in Bristol’s data centers, where they created a self-service offering for academics that was built on standardized processes and which could prove the benefits of the approach:

That meant we could monitor costs and understand exactly how we could optimise the service. I'm a great believer in crawl before you walk and walk before you run. So, I set the strategy out, we understood the vendor, we understood where we wanted to go, and we understood what the overall infrastructure stack was going to look like.

Creating the right solution

The pilot project resulted in a business case that led to full project funding in mid-2020. The IT team worked with external partner Xtravirt to take plans for the VCF platform from a concept to a day-to-day reality. They also worked alongside Bristol’s academics to ensure they were providing the technology required in a cost-efficient and effective manner. Woolley says: 

One of the things I was talking to with my academic colleagues before we had VMware was, ‘Why is our IT organization not your shop of choice?’ And it came down to two things - you’re too slow, and you cost too much. So, I sat down with them and said, ‘Well, if I can make this self-service and free at the point of entry, can I be the IT shop of choice?’ Of course, they said, ‘If you could, that would be fantastic.’ So, we built it – and it did happen. 

Such has been the level of success that Woolley’s approach has been cited in papers from the university’s academic community. Today, VCF is at the heart of Bristol’s technology stack onto which the organization adds other resources. Wooley elaborates:

We're looking at how we can add GPU into that resource. We're also looking at how we can add edge technology, so we can operate it from anywhere. We're putting a full virtual desktop over the top and we're bursting into the cloud. So now, all of a sudden, we've now got this technology that is core to our operation.

Next up, Bristol is going to start migrating its standard workloads to the VCF platform as well, in an effort to optimize cloud utilization. Woolley is also talking to VMware about how other technology – such as the modular, cloud-native application platform Tanzu – might help to manage enterprise data storage effectively: 

That work will fit nicely into some of the things we're trying to achieve. It's a really rounded structure for what we're trying to do in terms of providing global access to our systems.


Along with the benefits, Woolley says there have been two major challenges that he’s come across during this process, beginning with the network:

We're implementing a software-driven network because the plumbing we had wasn’t robust enough to be dynamic in IP range and security. So, don't underestimate all the component parts to getting the first-class solution you need.

Skills is the other challenge. Although the Bristol University IT team included certified VMware specialists, they weren’t necessarily prepared for a completely new way of working that’s required by a multi-cloud approach. Woolley says:

I started to talk to them about the fact that, ‘We're going to be doing something completely different in the way we operate our environment.’ That meant a change in how we were going to spin into the cloud, how we’d manage our costs, and they could see it was a completely different skill set.

Looking back on what's been achieved to date, Woolley points to what he calls a pioneering platform for Bristol’s academic community:

There's nothing that I've seen in the marketplace, and I can't point to any other vendor at this moment in time, that can give me the interoperability of multi-cloud in the way VMware does. If I could find something else that I could hold against it, I would, because I like to have competition.

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