UTS charging towards all-cloud with legacy tech no longer making the grade

The university adopted a cloud strategy for the purpose of alleviating constraints, rather than reducing costs.

The University of Technology Sydney (UTS) boasts 44,000 enrolled students, 300,000 alumni, around 4,000 staff members, and about 300 IT workers across three campuses in and around Sydney CBD, all of which are receivers of services from the university.

But unlike the other tertiary institutions around the country, UTS just celebrated its 30th birthday, and according to UTS web and applications manager David O'Connor, its youth breeds a somewhat "ambitious" environment, especially when it comes to IT.

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"We came to the conclusion that what we had in place wasn't going to cut it; we could no longer keep pace with the speed the university wanted to operate at," he explained.

In mid-2016, the university started thinking about the technology architecture it had, and built out its Application 2020 Strategy, which O'Connor said is focused on cloud-based application platforms, simplifying the university's environment, and, over a number of years, pushing everything it can to cloud and software-as-a-service (SaaS)-based work.

However, as UTS is a government-funded education institution, it needed to put a solid business case forward for change, especially when shifting everything from on to offsite. It also meant going to tender to find a solution that worked and a vendor to partner with.

Favouring an integration-platform-as-a-service (IPaaS) solution, UTS selected Dell Boomi.

Financial savings, while desired, weren't the main driver for a cloud shift, and O'Connor said Boomi was selected due to its ease of use, as the university believed it would provide speed to market, which was of high importance.

"Integration has actually been a real pain point for us -- lots of complaints about how long new applications take -- it's been like that for years," O'Connor told journalists in Sydney on Wednesday. "We have a reasonably big on-premise footprint in terms of integration, but we could never quite get it to where we wanted it to be despite lots of investment.

"We have a pretty comprehensive on-premise integration environment at the moment, and it does what it does reasonably well -- but what we have isn't going to cut it in a cloud world."

With a heavy importance also placed on data, O'Connor said the university decided to bring its application integration team and its BI and data teams together under single management to address problems such as processes double handling.

"For example, we had a single source system; we had two different teams taking data out, using different technology stacks, different processes, and depending on where it was going would guide who would do the work, and that's quite inefficient," O'Connor explained.

He said the IPaaS project somewhat brought about cultural change into those groups.

"A university is a very complex environment; we don't control all of the technology and we don't want to, but what we want to do is have a robust mechanism for moving data around the organisation and making it available in a controlled fashion," he said.

The end is in sight for the implementation project, but along the way, UTS also realised a handful of unexpected outcomes, from standing up several production APIs to integrating production applications, as some examples.

"We've hooked it up to our Amazon Redshift data warehouse -- a few years ago, we moved our data warehouse to the cloud -- so a really critical factor was getting that working with the whole Boomi ecosystem," O'Connor added.

"We're actually able to do more in that implementation project than we expected to do in the beginning, for no extra cost and no extra time we fit more in ... outside of scope of the original project, which, to be honest, is a bit unheard of in projects that we run because you ask our CIO who tells me every project is over budget, so this is a good story for us, which is fantastic."

Almost every project UTS now runs is SaaS, cloud-based, with O'Connor explaining that where that is not possible, official exemptions are required.

O'Connor said UTS is currently around the 50/50 mark when talking cloud versus on-premises, noting that this percentage will continue to rise in favour of SaaS.

"In the higher education space in particular, lots of the software markets are quite immature ... there's not a lot of options out there sometimes, and some of the options that are there are only on-premise," he explained. "Because of that, it's going to take time."

The university has a handful of big projects in the pipeline, including ERP and learning management replacements.

"We see it as playing a key role in opening up our data -- actually, we want to open up our data to researchers, students, in new ways, get some innovation happening across the university," O'Connor added.

"We'll increasingly see IT saying yes to requests.

"In today's environment, you're never going to know the answers to everything, there are some areas we still need to explore before we go further. But we jumped and I think it was the right thing to do, and over time I think we'll start to reap the benefits from that decision."

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