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Making the grade on a hyper-connected university campus

New technologies are game-changing, but accessing and storing massive amounts of content presents a serious IT challenge.
University Business, September 2015

In today’s 24/7, always-on world, students, faculty and other key stakeholders expect institutions of higher education to be on the cutting edge of technology. As CIO of Western Oregon University (WOU), a vibrant campus of 4,992 undergraduates and 1,066 graduate students with our main campus in Monmouth, I know that when it comes to technology, leading universities must deliver unsurpassed learning capabilities that extend well beyond the classroom. Constant connectivity, mobility, and access to rich media anytime, anywhere shape both students’ and faculties’ college experience and help to attract and retain discerning students, faculty and staff.

At Western Oregon University, we pride ourselves on our innovative approaches to providing effective, technology-powered learning channels that better support our faculty and prepare our students for success in an increasingly global world. WOU was an early adopter of virtual desktop infrastructure to give students access to desktops and applications from multiple computer labs on campus. Our administration also uses business intelligence software for dimensional data modeling, which is then applied to educational, operational, and financial decisions.

As the use of media-rich tools became prevalent amongst our faculty, we made the decision to standardize on an e-learning system to enhance classroom instruction and deliver courses completely online. Our faculty was able to use this platform to incorporate video, syllabi, quizzes and other content into their courses, while providing students with one convenient, centralized repository of course materials.

As countless university CIOs have discovered, these technologies are game-changing for faculty, administration, and students alike. It wasn’t until after we began implementing these new technologies that we first noticed the problem: a serious challenge to our ability to access and store the massive volume of content moving through our network.

The Challenge

Our faculty immediately saw the benefits of using an e-learning platform: more engaged students; the ability to share content important to their teaching without the limitations of class time parameters; providing students with additional materials made available at any time. This eagerness to use the system resulted in very large files, especially those containing streaming video. As a result, our IT department was challenged to maintain high application performance as hundreds of students logged into the system to view video content and PowerPoint presentations. The available storage and network supported only 580 concurrent users, yet many more students wanted to log in and use the system.

The frustrations were not limited to the students. Faculty was discouraged by long log-in times and difficulty uploading video content. Preparing an hour long video relevant to an upcoming test yet not being able to load it for students to view makes for one unhappy professor.

The pain began to be felt campus wide. Students were experiencing lengthy delays when using the campus computer labs and logging into their virtual desktops and launching applications. The course registration system had moments of being unresponsive during the spring registration. And business reports driving profitability and decision-making regarding human resources, finance and student population took as long as six hours to generate.

The old adage had proven true: If you build it, they will come. However, if they come but can’t get through the door, there is a real problem. It was our innovative approach to technology that was presenting these challenges, and we knew we had to find a way to remedy them.

The Solution

When our IT team took a hard look at our network infrastructure, we realized that storage was a performance bottleneck. We decided to move our high-input/output applications and databases onto solid state drives which allowed for better performance, reliability, and availability for these applications and resources that are accessed most frequently by our students, faculty and staff. Solid state drives have no moving parts. Information is stored in microchips. This is the differentiator between solid state drives and hard disk drives which use a mechanical arm with a read/write head to move around and read information from the right location on the storage system. This lack of moving parts is what makes solid state drives so much faster than hard disk drives – and ultimately, more costly. Both have a role to play in any universities storage system-- the key is utilizing them judiciously.

By identifying which components of our network needed to respond most efficiently – e-learning; virtual desktops and reporting – we were able to re-allocate resources to provide the fastest storage to shore up their performance. Other components of our network could remain on hard disk drives, a less costly alternative, allowing us to maximize our investment by focusing on components whose performance was most vital.

We put this new storage system into place over the summer break so that we could have it in place for the fall semester. When students and faculty returned to campus in full, we quickly saw that our strategy had been successful.

The Result

With the start of the new school year, my IT team immediately saw positive results. Performance soared, both for on-demand videos as well as for access to course materials, such as syllabi, quizzes and tests. The solid state drives could handle ten times the number of concurrent users in ninety-five percent less processing time, even while playing large video files. Where 580 users had previously overwhelmed the system, now 5,125 concurrent users can be supported with superior performance. System downtime quickly came to a halt, which is especially important for students who want to study or complete assignments whenever or wherever it’s convenient. And faculty has been able to utilize the e-learning platform more effectively, adding even more resources such as videos without delay or fear of data loss. Instructors and students both have a private backup space they can rely on it to share files and collaborate. With the new system, our backup times went from over an hour to just minutes.

Virtual desktop performance has improved significantly as well, loading twice as fast, even during IT upgrades or events. And most critical for administrative staff – business intelligence reports that used to take six hours to run are now complete in twenty seconds.

The improved system performance has altered the day-to-day experience of my IT team as well. My systems administrators no longer have to spend a majority of their time figuring out quick fixes to temporarily shore up a failing system. Now, staff is able to use that time upgrading to the latest versions of our e-learning platform, web browsers, and other applications and making other system upgrades and improvements.

For other university CIOs struggling to reap the benefits of cutting-edge technology, I encourage you to look at your storage solution as one way to sustain lightning-fast performance. While solid state drives may cost more, the immediate return on investment is significant. Today’s leading universities simply cannot have a system that is working only part of the time. Taking a hard look at your storage system and deciding which components can stay on hard disk drives and which would benefit from a move to solid state drives could be a game-changer for your university. It certainly was for Western Oregon.

Bill Kernan is CIO of Western Oregon University.

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