It's been just over 12 months since Peter Nikoletatos packed up his office at the University of Newcastle and moved west to take over the role of CIO at Perth's Curtin University of Technology. Since then, he's been working to manage the inevitable complexities of university IT while making sure he has enough time to keep his head in the clouds.
Or, to be totally accurate, in the cloud. Nikoletatos is a big believer in economies of scale, and he reckons the university community — with billions in annual buying, thousands of IT staff and probably 80 per cent functional overlap — needs to band together and explore new ways to leverage those commonalities. And that imperative is, in turn, lending new weight to the idea of cloud computing.
Call it cloud computing or call it managed services; he calls it the way of the future, and he's unapologetic about his ambition to help Curtin cast off the legacy-encumbered IT disarray that continues to plague many other universities.
"We're having a long, hard look at what cloud computing means to us," Nikoletatos explains. "We've begun exploring cloud computing in terms of hosting, email, and hosting some of our archive and backup processes to see how that works. Our long-term strategy is to embrace the trend toward the cloud and the direct benefits it has to a university of our size."
The 7 October announcement of an alliance between Melbourne, Monash and RMIT universities and Fujitsu, which will result in a common and shared datacentre infrastructure for those institutions, is the kind of thing he wants to see more of.
So far, however, the most tangible sign yet that cloud computing is coming to fruition emerged when Curtin, already a heavy user of Microsoft desktop and server platforms, committed in September to migrate its internally managed Sun iPlanet email system to Microsoft's Live@edu hosted email system.
That migration, which will give students 10GB of inbox space compared with 20MB under the previous system, will involve 192,000 student and alumni mailboxes to be hosted by Microsoft.
Microsoft pipped Google's rival offerings largely because Curtin "is fundamentally a Microsoft shop and there are some benefits that align very clearly with the whole long-term strategy," he adds. The deal also gives users access to hosted collaboration services including Microsoft Outlook Live, Microsoft Office Live Workspace, Microsoft Office Live SkyDrive file sharing, Windows Live Messenger, Windows Live Spaces and the FolderShare file synchronisation tool.
The new system comes at very little cost to Curtin, Nikoletatos says, but "you're getting more than email, and the benefits are significantly higher. The financial case stacks up very easily, and in the long term we will look at how we can progress the staff to take advantage of them too."
Although a Fujitsu-styled deal isn't in the works, Live@edu is a tangible part of the university's growing push towards managed services. This effort includes the eventual rationalisation of its 15 server rooms, which are being re-evaluated both under the cloud computing mandate and as a natural target for efforts to minimise the university's environmental footprint.
Nikoletatos' long-term vision incorporates much more than simple datacentre consolidation, however: in the long term, he says, growing adoption of cloud computing could see the university's entire infrastructure shifted off-campus. Instead, the university's physical infrastructure could be managed by a third party anywhere in Australia — or even, potentially, overseas.
With university-focused backbone provider AARNet already providing multi-gigabit connections around the country, such a configuration could be easily introduced and managed regardless of the physical distance between Curtin and its IT systems.
"We've got our infrastructure in terms of AARNet to a fairly mature model," he explains, "so where the datacentre physically is, is not as important for us as it used to be. Our focus would be on ensuring the governance and security of our data as the highest priority. But it's not a small change, and we have processes in place that will have to be satisfied."
In the short term, Nikoletatos is handling some rather more immediate challenges. Fat-client desktops will remain for the time being, with the recent launch of Windows 7 creating the impetus for a platform upgrade that will — over the course of a three-year rolling upgrade — eventually reach the university's 10,000 desktops.
Windows 7 will be paired with Microsoft's upcoming Office 2010 productivity suite — currently in testing at Curtin — creating a new desktop standard that will power the university's desktops for the next few years.
"We need to ensure that any move to a different environment works well with our corporate systems as a highest priority," Nikoletatos explains. "What we have seen of Windows 7 seems to be quite positive, but we have to get it all absolutely right before we can convince and reassure our users."
Even as the desktop environment looks set for a refresh, Curtin is working to improve student access to online resources. For example, iPortfolio, a new content management system designed to help students publish and share content via iTunes and other online channels, is currently in the midst of a 2000-staff and student pilot program.
Mobile computing also looms large: this month saw the launch of CurtinMobile, a mobile website that lets students access their email, campus maps, news and events information, transport information, and other relevant information. Designed to work on iPhones and other mobiles, Nikoletatos sees the site as a key step in the push to help students access resources in ways that make sense to them.
"We have a very strong focus on our students' experiences to make sure we get it right," he explains. "There's always a risk in being prescriptive to students; this generation knows what they want, and part of our challenge is to get that to them in a timely way. We're building a whole mobility platform with this strategy in mind, and making sure the components are built around the same framework, can talk to each other, and that the look and feel are consistent."
Surveys earlier this year gave students a way to convey their wants and needs, and Nikoletatos believes the university's ability to be responsive to those needs will be essential moving forward.
He credits the three-way relationship he has with Curtin's Office of Teaching and Learning, and with the university's Academic Registrar, for much of the success he has enjoyed in his first year — and says such strong relationships are essential for successfully effecting the dramatic changes that lie just over the horizon.
"We don't do this in isolation," he says. "We need our colleagues to work with us so we can realise the benefits you get from thinking outside the square."