Melbourne Uni fights spaghetti threat with iPaaS

The University of Melbourne has increased its use of cloud services as part of a broader innovation agenda mdash; but that emphasis has brought with it the dangers of reverting to a previous condition of “spaghetti architecture,” according to Tommy Hoeglund.

Hoeglund, the institution’s system integration manager, was last week a featured speaker at the Sydney leg of Dell Boomi’s ‘World Tour’ event series. He told the conference that the university has rolled out Boomi’s integration platform as service (iPaaS) offering to help contain the risk of cloud integration sprawl.

Boomi’s Master Data Hub (MDH) is providing the foundation for data synchronisation across the university’s application landscape mdash; a not-insignificant challenge given the university has 49,000 staff members (about 8500 FTE, thanks to a large number of contractors and casual staff), and 75,000 students. The university is the largest publicly funded research organisation in Australia, with $1+ billion of its $2.3 billion budget allocated to research.

The largest data set that the university is managing relates to student class registrations: In a single year Melbourne Uni has around 750,000 class registration records that it maintains, and the institution retains that data on a two-year basis. “So in fact we’re actually processing 1.5 million on a nightly basis,” Hoeglund said.

When Hoeglund took on his role as system integration manager in 2015, the university already had already had an Integration Competency Centre at the university for “quite some time”; however, he said, it had a “misaligned cost model” that lumped a first-mover customer with the entire cost of delivering a service.

The university also suffered from having a chaotic architecture with a significant number of point-to-point integrations. And with the previous cost model there was little incentive to move from an approach of putting out individual fires to tackling the underlying causes.

In 2015 mdash;the time that Hoeglund joined the integration team mdash; the university decided it needed to do things differently and a “bucket of money” was allocated to enterprise integration. That included a move to a new cost model with a standard cost to serve internal customers of the integration team.

After three years the university ended up with a multi-tiered service-oriented architecture, with seven enterprise APIs for core assets. “It doesn’t sound like much but these are not microservices; they’re actually quite enriched data services that systems could consume at their leisure and transform into whatever they wanted,” Hoeglund said.

Hoeglund’s team oversaw a shift away from point-to-point integration to decoupled services and rolled out a centralised system to manage file transfers.

The team made good progress in building trust with the rest of the university, but still found itself dealing with a significant challenge in the form of the 700 or so applications used across Melbourne Uni.

“Not all of them require integration, but you can see the scale really was a problem that we had,” Hoeglund said.

The integration team also had to grapple with the explosion in cloud growth across the university.

In 2015 Melbourne Uni had released a new edition of its strategic plan titled Growing Esteem. (As part of that strategy it set up University Services – which Hoeglund said was the largest shared services organisation in higher education, centralising functions such as payroll and HR as well as housing the integration team.)

In 2018, the university formalised two innovation priorities as part of delivering the plan: “Evidence for action” mdash; a focus on data-driven decision-making mdash; and “pivot to digital”. The second of these saw a significant boost to cloud uptake. “We already had a lot of cloud applications but... it really took us to the next level,” Hoeglund said.

Hoeglund told the conference that vendors “are very smart” and know that integration is a potential bottleneck when it comes to cloud adoption. “So they basically start to acquire their own middleware, and then say to the business ‘You don’t have to worry about integration because we can do that for you,’” he said.

“The problem we saw then was that now every cloud system can integrate with any other cloud system,” Hoeglund said.

“Our fear was that we would go backwards to having spaghetti architecture not just on-prem but also in the cloud,” the integration manger said. “And if you think that it’s difficult to work out what’s happening on-prem if you have spaghetti architecture – imagine it in the cloud where you don’t actually have direct access to the resources that are managing this integration.”

As a result he said it was clear that something needed to be done. The university had already made “quite a significant investment” in on-prem integration. “Therefore we said we need to actually extend this and also we needed to make integration ‘hip’ – as in a hybrid integration platform,” Hoeglund said.

The result was the rollout of Boomi, with the on-prem platform kept as a possible fall back: “It’s a very traditional way of doing development and we always said in the worst case scenario if we can’t do this development using Dell Boomi we can fall back on the on-prem platform,” he said. “That hasn’t actually been proven to be the case but I think it was just a way for us to take the step to say, ‘Yes we can do it.’”

Boomi is now also helping underpin Melbourne’s ‘smart campus’ transition, through managing the collection of sensor data.

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