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At Lone Star, Cloud Computing Rides to the Rescue

To meet the challenge posed by soaring enrollment and widely separated campuses, Texas' Lone Star College System looks to the cloud for a solution.

Lone Star College System in Houston, TX, has seen incredible growth over the past three years, with enrollment rising from 63,000 to 85,000 students. The community college system is made up of five colleges, two university centers, and eight instructional centers, with new locations opening soon. The combination of accelerated growth and widespread campuses created an increasingly difficult challenge for IT services. To address this challenge, LSCS partnered with EMC and VMware to implement a cloud-computing solution designed to deliver IT-as-a-service to more than 90,000 students, faculty, and staff.

Campus Technology spoke with Link Alander, vice chancellor of technology services at LSCS, about the decision to move to a cloud-based infrastructure--and the benefits that have resulted.

Campus Technology: What was the impetus behind your shift to a cloud-based infrastructure?

Link Alander: The shift was based on three critical ideals:

  1. Enterprise agility: The ability of IT to deliver services fast to meet the institution's goals, even amid rapid growth.
  2. High availability: Our standard is 99.999 percent uptime for critical Tier I services.
  3. IT maturity: IT in higher education must change--we have to add value. The cloud enables us to do this without adding staff.

CT: What are some of the critical applications for which you've achieved 99.999 percent uptime?

LA: Let's break that question into two pieces:

  1. Core services: Microsoft Active Directory, Exchange, SharePoint, Call Manager, and all networking solutions.
  2. ERP Services: Oracle PeopleSoft ERP--Human Capital Management, Talent Acquisition Manager, Campus, Financial Management Solutions. This is the largest PeopleSoft deployment in higher education.

CT: What have been the financial benefits of the switch?

LA: The easiest benefit to quote is more than $600,000 in savings in capital expenditures, but there have been many more. Besides the soft cost savings of power and support, there are immeasurable benefits--the ability to meet a business or instructional unit's needs.

CT: How does a shift to the cloud affect your resource allocation?
A shift in your workforce is required as you leverage private and hybrid clouds. These changes require planning and retraining. In the end, though, the overall goal is to improve service delivery.

CT: What were some of the key issues that the switch to IT-as-a-service has resolved?

LA: In the past, our core systems could not handle the load when 85,000 students tried to register. It was guaranteed that we would have many outages as the students overloaded our ERP. There was little we could do: We limited the system's use to registration only; and we had teams watch around the clock to get the system going right after it crashed. It was a mess. I couldn't add more resources to the system without replacing all the hardware--a few million bucks.

Our private cloud is meeting our new demands. We have gone through two registrations on the new design and have not had a system outage. During peak registration, I am able to dynamically add capacity to meet the heavy load. We no longer have to shut down other areas like finance during registration. After registration, the elastic capacity is released to the system for other uses.

The second big issue was the time needed to implement new services--it could take two to three months to bring a new service on line. After selecting a solution with the business unit, we used to be stuck in the process of procurement of hardware, storage, etc. Then we would have to provision the systems, go through change control--eventually, the new service would go on line. Today, after the business-process review we can provision the needed hardware in a few days. This does present other challenges --like capacity management and system integration--but best practices are available on how to deal with these.

CT: Can you provide an example of an IT service that will be delivered using the new cloud infrastructure?

LA: Most recently, our Foundations Department needed a new donor-tracking application. We met with its staff, which had already reviewed a few systems. The next day, after we had researched the solutions, we selected a system together. In the old days, the next step would have been to order the hardware and wait for it to be delivered. Instead, we developed a service-level agreement for the system based on our standards, and then started work. The solution requirements were actually two servers, a SQL database and 200 GB of storage. The Foundations Department also wanted the application to be able to fail over to another site if there was a hardware problem. It took two days to provision the infrastructure needed, process change control, set backups, and deploy the application to meet their requirements. If we had had to wait for the hardware, it would have taken months.

CT: Why did you choose EMC and VMware for your cloud infrastructure?

LA: We looked at many things before we decided on a solution. Key factors were: Are they an industry leader and are they innovating? We know EMC and VMware are leaders in their space and are constantly innovating. The critical factor that set them apart, though, is that they are focused on a partnership and don't just want to be vendors to LSCS. They want to add value, and they understand that their success is our success.

CT: Do you have plans for expansion or additions to the current infrastructure?

LA: We follow best practices in capacity management to make sure the services can be delivered as advertised. We are constantly evaluating and upgrading the core infrastructure based on these assessments. One point to make is that we don't just look at our infrastructure. We constantly evaluate if a service should be managed internally or should go to a hybrid cloud model.

CT: Do you have any advice for institutions that might be considering a move to a cloud-based infrastructure?

LA: Do it! A move to the cloud allows the IT department to shift its focus from basic IT services to adding value to the institution. That is a game changer and it does not happen overnight. The end result is that IT is looked at as a valued strategic resource--not a black hole for money.

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