Unis prepare for next Cloud wave

Following a wave of migration to Cloud-based email systems for students and staff, Australian universities are preparing for the next migration trend, outsourcing instances of the popular Blackboard student resources portal to the vendor’s own servers.

The University of Western Sydney (UWS) has committed to moving to Blackboard’s hosted suite by the middle of next year, an 18-month migration that will relieve the institution of 15 servers and offer student support 24 hours a day.

“The Cloud version is quite attractive,” outgoing IT director, Mick Houlahan told Computerworld Australia. “The teaching development unit developed a case the VC [UWS vice chancellor, Professor Janice Reid] is happy with. That’s not going to solve all of the problems but for me, it’ll take a lot away.”

In particular, he said the reduced maintenance concerns for university IT staff would provide additional benefits.

"The biggest issue for us is our ability to support it - the demands are almost infinite," he said. "If we have to do maintenance or there's an outage, there’s always complaints."

The move is one of several the university is undertaking to effectively move physical data centres off-campus. Though Houlahan is relieving control of IT systems to an as-yet-unannounced replacement, he said he would expect not to have a data centre at UWS within five years.

Curtin University in Perth and RMIT in Melbourne became some of the first in Australia to outsource the suite, with both going live in January this year. Curtin CIO, Peter Nikoletatos, said the migration came as a precursor to newer versions of the software and mobile-based projects currently under way at the university.

“I would argue that [Blackboard] performance actually improved slightly,” he said. “The other advantage is that it will reduce our scheduled maintenance windows, that, effectively when the system is not available.

The Swinburne University of Technology has also migrated its instances of Blackboard to the vendor’s managed hosting environment across its university and TAFE students.

The University of Melbourne had explored a hosted Blackboard arrangement “very seriously” following their move to outsource email and spam control management. However, CIO Sendur Kathir said the solution had failed to meet his criteria for such arrangements, which encompass availability and disaster recovery; privacy and security; cost effectiveness; and ease of integration.

However, Nikoletatos said the benefits outweighed any negative.

“If you approach this from a finance argument only, you may miss the real benefits which are effectively the hidden costs,” Nikoletatos said.

Blackboard’s managed hosting, which it has only begun offering in recent years, is provided on Oracle infrastructure in Tier 4 data centres hosted out of Australia, the United States and Europe. Service level agreements at the top tier of service include 99.9 per cent uptime.

Most Australian universities have, since at least 2009, moved their student, staff and alumni email to Cloud-based email systems hosted on either Microsoft’s Live@edu or Google’s Gmail solutions.

According to Houlahan, the progress of such trends among institutions have been driven largely by the Council of Australian University Directors of Information Technology (CAUDIT), the members of which shared their experiences to the point of swapping draft agreements with Microsoft and Google prior to migration.

“There’s a lot of that hand holding,” Houlahan told Computerworld Australia. “As time rolls on, you get a lot of feedback about what works and what doesn’t work.”

Follow James Hutchinson on Twitter: @j_hutch

Follow Computerworld Australia on Twitter: @ComputerworldAU


Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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