Working together, Tech Services at the University of Illinois help their customers take advantage of the cloud to deploy IT assets quickly, scale their use as needed, optimize costs, and deploy advanced tools more simply than they could have if they were using on premises technology.
At a large university, potential uses for cloud computing are almost limitless. In partnership with Amazon Web Services (AWS), the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign is exploring many of those possibilities, implementing a variety of systems across the campus to serve users’ specialized needs.
The hub of this activity is Technology Services at Illinois, the university’s central administrative unit for information technology. With a staff of about 300, the department provides services that touch all aspects of life and work at the university. Its responsibilities include data infrastructure, the unified communications system, server virtualization and storage, classroom technology, the learning management system, other campus-wide applications, web hosting, cloud services, and more.
Technology Services’ first substantial public cloud project started about four years ago, when leaders signed an enterprise contract with AWS. Tech Services originally formed that agreement to support the needs of a single faculty researcher. Since then, the relationship has expanded to serve more than 200 active AWS accounts, with cloud-based services that touch many more end users. About half of the AWS accounts are researchers while others are individuals or groups from throughout the campus community.
Cloud services at Illinois rely on close cooperation among Tech Services, its cloud providers, and IT staff employed by university departments and business units. Working together, these partners help their customers — the end users — take advantage of the cloud to deploy IT assets quickly, scale their use as needed, optimize costs, and deploy advanced tools more simply than they could have if they were using on premises technology. “When people start to leverage the cloud, they realize they can much more quickly add value to their systems and applications,” says Greg Gulick, interim chief information officer at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
Under the collaborative arrangement, users retain autonomy in their projects but have experts to turn to for advice and support. And as users complete their implementations in the cloud, other users gain insights to inform their own initiatives.
End users at Illinois were working in the cloud even before Tech Services had contracts with AWS or other cloud providers. But they consumed those cloud services independently, choosing their own vendors, paying with credit cards, and submitting the bills for reimbursement.
Gulick says moving from an ad hoc procedure allows the university to procure IT services through established university contracts. A contract ensures an agreement with a vendor conforms to state statutes and campus policies and the services come with the necessary guardrails for cybersecurity.
“There’s also a cost reduction if we aggregate all that spend,” he says. “Tech Services can negotiate lower rates for the enterprise than individuals can for themselves, saving money for everyone.”
Because the original researcher’s project required the AWS platform, Tech Services formed a campus-wide agreement with AWS, which has since become the university’s leading cloud provider for infrastructure as a service.
“AWS has helped Tech Services support customers who would like to use cloud services, running workshops on a regular basis,” Gulick says. “That helps us to increase the number of people we can support and the level of support we provide.”
Tech Services charges its campus customers for the AWS services they consume without adding extra for overhead. This assures customers they are getting exactly what they pay for — a strong consideration for those who are working with tight budgets, Gulick says. The arrangement gives users an incentive to take advantage of the enterprise contact, rather than pull out their credit cards and go it alone.
When an individual or group on campus decides to build a system or service in the AWS Cloud, Tech Services plays the role of broker. Rather than provide staff for the project, it provides support to customers who are using their own resources to execute the projects and works closely with AWS support resources.
This approach lets Tech Services manage the cloud environment for many users and stakeholders. It also helps projects proceed quickly in a self-service manner. The collaborative model has worked well for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Library, which migrated its digital preservation repository to the AWS Cloud. The project started in late 2017 and wrapped in early 2019. As developers in the Library’s IT department launched the project, they got initial guidance from the cloud architect in solutions architect assigned to our campus,” says Tracy Tolliver, the Library’s director of information technology.
The Library launched the project so it could move the repository and associated applications off a cluster of virtual servers on campus, where they consumed about 156 TB of storage.
“The number one goal was to get rid of hardware,” Tolliver says. “That would reduce the time we spent on maintenance and allow us to work more with our stakeholders on enhancing applications.”
The digital repository contains mainly images and documents. The first two applications the Library moved were the Illinois Data Bank, which researchers use to store data they produce in their projects, and the Illinois Digital Library, which lets the public access and interact with parts of the digital collection. While the Library’s IT staff worked with AWS day-to-day, Tech Services’ central role as broker for the AWS Cloud was also very important. “They procured it, and then the enterprise team set things up in AWS so we could adopt it for campus services,” Tolliver says.
For instance, Tech Services set up an Amazon Virtual Private Cloud (Amazon VPC), which lets users connect their systems to campus services. “They provided those enterprise-level things that everyone was going to need,” Tolliver says. They did it once, and we didn’t all have to duplicate it.”
A more recent project, in the university’s Division of Intercollegiate Athletics (DIA), offers another example of collaboration between Tech Services, AWS, and users. While the Library’s goal was to move existing services into the cloud, DIA is using the AWS platform to build something entirely new: a system that taps artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) to help football coaches plan strategies for future games.
The system will analyze the success of plays that Illinois and its opponents have employed in the past. Coaches will use these analyses to help decide which plays to use depending on the situation in upcoming games. On screen, the system will overlay recommendations on an image of a football field.
“We can see which plays are successful but also which plays the opponent, or teams that have played this opponent, have used successfully in the same situation,” says Kingsley Osei-Asibey, director of analytics and football technology at Illinois. The ML system will replace a series of laborious calculations and manual processes that coaches currently use to gain the insights they need.
“Data influences every decision that can be made today in football, from game planning to on-field decisions,” says Osei-Asibey. “I think we’re at the forefront in using the data behind the game to help our coaches make the best decisions.”
Tech Services originally brought the idea for the ML project to DIA. Osei-Asibey works with the ML Solutions Team at AWS to translate his ideas about how the system should work into code. He also helps the ML experts with another sort of translation.
“They’ve had to come up on the lingo and jargon of football,” says Nick Rogers, associate athletic director for sports technology at DIA. “They have demonstrated that they understand what would benefit Kingsley and the coaches and take the program forward.”
While Osei-Asibey collaborates with AWS, the data analytics team at Tech Services provides advice as needed. Tech Services will also help DIA enhance the system over time, as opportunities emerge to adopt more advanced technologies. Building the ML system in the AWS Cloud lets DIA leverage the features of advanced technologies like AI without having to maintain in-house expertise to build the new system and keep it running.
Besides freeing up on-campus staff and infrastructure, and letting users implement new systems without investing in new hardware, the AWS cloud brings the University of Illinois several other capabilities. One is the ability to optimize costs by relying more on operational, rather than capital, expenditures.
“As you put things in the cloud, you have the opportunity to take cost out over time,” says Gulick. “If you have sunk costs on capital expense for infrastructure, you’ve already spent those dollars. You can try to maximize that, but you can’t optimize it.”
Another benefit is the ability to quickly incorporate new features as the cloud provider introduces them.
“If you had onsite infrastructure staff trying to add those capabilities, it would be impossible to do that at the rate that folks like AWS are able to,” says Gulick. “I’ve had researchers who either couldn’t do what they were trying to do with our existing infrastructure or were able to do it much more quickly and efficiently by leveraging the cloud computing model to do it.”
The partnership between Tech Services, AWS, and the campus community also has promoted a strong spirit of IT collaboration across the university. Building on that spirit, Illinois is establishing an enterprise-wide structure to manage cloud activities.
“We’re putting together a governance team for cloud that consists of folks from all over campus IT — not just in Tech Services — to evaluate how we’re going to operate in the cloud environment and what strategic directions we want to take,” Gulick says.
As part of that effort, Illinois has established a Cloud Center of Excellence, Gulick says. “It’s a collaboration of IT folks from across campus to further drive strategy for adoption and support across the university.”
For the University Library, the AWS Cloud provides much more flexibility to expand services than systems running on hardware would have allowed, says Tolliver. “We’re going to need to be able to scale horizontally, and we’ll have a lot of options to do that on AWS.”
For DIA, this first experience with ML through AWS offers a launch pad for future projects. “We have experience in the AWS platform, working with the ML team, working with Greg Gulick and his team, to be able to help power some of our other sports.”
Once DIA gets the football analysis system up and running, and receives feedback from end users, it can investigate other applications for ML and the cloud, Rogers says. “We are always working on projects for other programs. These are things that are going to be incorporated into those discussions.”
Besides helping end users such as DIA and the University Library gain benefits in the cloud, Tech Services also uses AWS for functions that affect the entire university. The most urgent right now is the effort to ensure a safe campus environment in the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. As part of its Safe and Healthy Communities project, the university plans to make testing for COVID-19 easily available throughout campus. Students, faculty, and staff who get tested will receive their results via a mobile phone app. That app will also remind individuals to be retested periodically and provide other information related to their COVID-19 status.
“The back-end infrastructure for the app is running on AWS,” Gulick says. “The app and the data we are running is a big part of our plan to reopen the university.”
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