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Data centre monitoring: building for the future of multinationals in Ireland

Posted: 16 May, 2017

An interview with DIT lecturer, Dr Ruairi de Frein about his research on data centre monitoring and the potential impact of his work for multinational companies in Ireland.

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DIT Lecturer, Dr Ruairí de Fréin was recently awarded a Starting Investigator Research Grant from Science Foundation Ireland for his research on data centre monitoring in the cloud. We chatted with Ruairí about the impact of his work for multinational companies in Ireland and his plans to develop data centre monitoring as a research area at DIT.   

What is your main research area?

I’m a Signal Processing researcher tackling the problem of data centre monitoring. Signal processing has been at the heart of many advances in technology, for example, digital communications and acoustics. We are now witnessing the application of signal processing to a range of new fields, in particular computer networks. The cloud is a technology that everybody uses everyday. You can apply it to digital communications, you can apply it to acoustics. A more popular name for the type of research I do is machine learning or data science; the mathematical underpinnings for the work is essentially the same as signal processing.

Can you tell me a bit about the research project for which you won the Starting Investigator Research Grant from Science Foundation Ireland?  

Companies are increasingly moving away from a scenario where they would have bought in their own IT services. They would have had a server down in the basement of their building with various bits and bobs, in order to allow them to host their website, do their payroll and so on. Today, companies are increasingly outsourcing this activity to big server farms. Facebook and Google are building these data centres and providing services to meet the demand of mobile phone users and so on. Companies can lease the servers remotely. Because the demands are so dynamic and because the services that people are looking for are so heterogeneous, it’s becoming really hard for companies to figure out what’s going on in their data centre. That’s the problem I’m trying to solve.

For example, a few years ago Amazon.com’s website went down on Christmas Eve, one of the biggest shopping moments of the year. I want to be able to figure out what crucial alarm could have alerted Amazon seconds or minutes in advance, so that they could have taken remedial action to make sure that their website and sales platform stayed up-and-running during this pivotal moment in their sales year. More generally, I want to figure out what the key alarms are in these data centres, so that companies can pre-empt problems like service outages and take the appropriate action to find solutions in a timely manner.

Can you speak a bit more to the potential impact of this research?

I’ve spoken about the impact of my work for multinational companies. In terms of the impact for academic research, taking ideas and concepts from the areas of signal processing and machine learning and embedding them in new networking protocols, which are adaptive and responsive, in order to learn what’s going on in the network, that’s cutting edge- in many cases, this has never been done. In terms of the national impact, Ireland is attracting a huge number of multinationals, Google, Facebook, Dropbox, you name it, they’re all here. A large number of companies are interested in deploying data centres in Ireland because we have a really skilled workforce, an ecosystem of Research and Development and a good climate for keeping data centers cool! To develop these data centre monitoring skills in-house at DIT on our undergraduate and postgraduate degree programmes would have a huge impact across Ireland. There’s currently a huge need for people who have this expertise, and that need will grow in years to come.

What does it mean to you as a researcher to get this funding from Science Foundation Ireland (SFI)?

It tells me that I’m moving in the right direction. It shows that SFI has faith in me and that they’re willing to fund my work for the next few years. I’ve been traveling for the last seven years as a Marie Curie Research Fellow, so it allows me to set down roots in DIT and to grow a team. It would be a lot more challenging if I didn’t have this funding.  

What are your research goals for the future?

I’d like to build a research team in the School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering and eventually to develop a world-class centre of excellence in the area of Data Centre Monitoring, Signal Processing and Machine Learning techniques at DIT. It’s a massive area, one that is really only taking off now. I’d like to be at the forefront of that.

What are you most excited for in terms of your research in the coming year?

I’m excited to get established, to welcome new people onto the team. I’ll have one PhD student and a postdoctoral researcher working on the project. It’s great to be in DIT and great to be back in Dublin. I’ve been living abroad for seven years, but I’m from Dublin originally. The energy of the new state-of-the-art campus in Grangegorman and the dynamism of the research community in DIT is very exciting to me.

What advice would you give to the next generation of budding researchers?

If you’re interested in doing research in the area of data centre monitoring, a strong background in mathematics and computer programming is key. Besides that, a lot of determination. I applied for the Starting Investigator Research Grant twice. My initial application was deemed fundable, but only subject to available SFI funding. Unfortunately, it was not retained by SFI. Don’t get discouraged, you have to keep plugging away at it, just keep going.

Why do you do what you do? What drives you to do this work?

The sense of accomplishment when you’ve implemented and documented an idea. It’s great to know that there are some nice little ideas, which you developed, which are working together to support your hypothesis. It’s also fantastic to be part of a supportive ecosystem of researchers in DIT and across the city, to feed off the enthusiasm of the broader research effort nationally, and to know that you are helping to position Ireland at the forefront of the next wave of world-leading technologies. 

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