November 26, 2012 By Tanya Roscorla
Seven of Tennessee's 13 community colleges have moved major systems to the cloud -- and used the state's Office of Information Resources as a centralized cloud hosting provider.
After seeing responses to a request for information from the Office of Information Resources and the company CedarCrestone, the colleges chose to partner with the state because it was willing to work with the colleges' unique consolidated effort, said Tom Danford, CIO of the Tennessee Board of Regents. But it would work with a forward-thinking commercial provider if the provider was willing to do the same.
Because the state office and community colleges were on the same network, traffic didn't have to go outside state lines, and redundancy was already built in. That was another factor in the decision, said Joe Sargent, executive director of information and educational technologies for Walters State Community College. And working with the state also allowed the colleges to avoid capital outlays of approximately $300,000 each. Those expenditures would have replaced seven-year-old hardware for student, financial and human resource systems.
The partnership benefits the state office as well: It had extra floor space in the data center and needed a way to recoup some of its costs, Sargent said. And it makes the community colleges more efficient.
"Rolling those systems out into the cloud just makes sense when you have shrinking dollars and shrinking resources," Sargent said.
This agreement gives the colleges an affordable disaster recovery agreement, said Emily Siciensky, associate vice president for IT at Columbia State Community College. it gives them a data center with greater dual power and Internet sources, physical and data security, fire suppression, heating and cooling, and generator capacity, said Tim Carroll, assistant vice president for information technology at Roane State Community College.
Because the office now handles the hardware, environmental and electrical costs, campuses can shift their personnel to other activities and pool their resources collectively.
"There is no way we could replicate the types of benefits that we gained by moving to this data center on our campuses," Carroll said. "We just simply could not have afforded to do it."
Lower college expenses help meet the requirements of the 2010 Complete College Tennessee Act. The act established a unified community college system for the first time under the Tennessee Board of Regents, tied higher education funding to student outcomes and told colleges to cut expenses to be successful.
"This reduces our overall costs, it increases our security, and once I think we get all the growing pains out of the way, it's going to be better for the student because it's going to be a lot more transparent," Danford said.
Like any project, this one has complexity, a steep learning curve and kinks to work out.
On the infrastructure side, the community colleges moved from Oracle (previously Sun) Solaris servers to Linux servers. They also switched from a regular database to an Oracle Real Application Clusters database — basically virtualized servers, Carroll said. On top of that, they moved to virtual servers on a single box.
It was just complicated and took time to work through issues, Siciensky said. But that complexity enabled the financial economies of scale that drove costs down, Danford said.
Walters State, the most recent college to move its systems, accomplished the transition in nine weeks, Sargent said. It's not a difficult process, especially now that the first schools to jump on board worked out some of the kinks.
Roane State went live in the summer, and the system now operates faster and more responsively than the locally operated system in the college's data center, Carroll said. But the colleges have had to deal with some cultural differences between themselves and the state.
The state's auditor demands more maintenance than the colleges are used to, which means more downtime, and some state staff operated as normal and bounced servers, but didn't notify the colleges. And the Internet connection has gone down a number of times.
With those exceptions, Carroll is happy with how the partnership has gone.
"Those kinds of things are frustrating to our users, but once we work all of those out in this first full year of being operational, I think we'll be on pretty sound footing," Carroll said.
More than anything, the main problem has been unplanned network outages, which is not necessarily something on the state side, Siciensky said. On the whole, though, her college has experienced faster response times.
"If you think about how complicated this all was and then think back on the issues we've run into, it's really pretty amazing that we haven't run into more," Siciensky said.
A number of factors have contributed to this project's success:
"The really great thing is I think that all of us trusted one another, and that's what made it work," Danford said. "We knew there were going to be some problems, but instead of pointing fingers, we all got together on a call and said, 'How do you fix this?'"
When this project started, a third of the community colleges were on the fence, and a third were not interested in the project. But now that they're seeing how it works, at least one more college has decided to join.
This story was originally published at the Center for Digital Education
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