This feature is the fourth in a series focused exclusively on issues impacting higher ed IT administrators, running through the beginning of the annual Educause conference, Oct. 25-28. For the series' previous entry, click here.
Dated architectures are pervasive across sectors. Many organizations struggle with older technology that is not as responsive to business needs and can slow users down.
This is particularly true of colleges and universities, where making strategic investments in system upgrades can seem pointless as long as they remain functioning. But foresight into the technologies’ lifecycle and the transition to more agile systems can go a long way in making improvements across campuses.
"Higher ed has not traditionally made a significant investment in infrastructure," said Allan Chen, CIO at Muhlenberg College.
Looking at the history of infrastructure investments, “if it worked we didn't bother changing it,” Chen said. “So, you end up with systems that are in fact 30 or even 40 years old that are still out there with a lot of institutions."
The majority of institutions have made the effort to pull out of their legacy, sometimes homegrown, systems in the last 15 years. Instead, campus tech leaders often look to replace them with something supported by a larger company with its own development team.
Even if it’s a commercial, well-supported product, if it’s been in place for a long time it still becomes an example of troubling legacy architecture, according to Chen.
At Muhlenberg, for example, a home-grown solution has been in place for 35 years. Finding the required tech talent to keep that system running can prove both challenging and costly.
The rise of mobile
The explosion of smartphone and tablet computing technology over the past decade has seen students’ technology preferences increasingly shift to mobile platforms.
For colleges and universities, that means confronting a number of concerns with legacy systems, many of which were created without mobile access or interactions with proprietary apps in mind. As desire and need for better data access rises, the problem only becomes more compounded.
Enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems provide some of the biggest pain points in this arena. “Many of the vendors are trying to do sort of an overhaul of their systems to not only build them on more modern technologies, but also make them more modern in their interfaces for users, too,” said Raechelle Clemmons, CIO at Davidson College.
But such an overhaul is also expensive. “It’s not like you can just take an ERP and switch it out in a weekend and be done with it. It’s a big system,” adds Clemmons. “It’s a big investment and it’s costly.”
For Kyle Johnson, dean of information technologies and support services and CIO at Chaminade University of Honolulu, mobility is a big pressure point. “Many folks come and say, ‘We would like to have a mobile app.’ We’re all for that, but our challenge is the data you want is trapped in a system that never considered mobile as a thing — and in some cases doesn’t even have a logical way to pull data out dynamically.”
Rather than relying on home-grown applications, campuses can instead turn toward vendor-created apps. At Chaminade, for example, students and faculty are encouraged to use the Instructure Canvas mobile app to access that learning platform for ease of use, since the vendor thought of it from the beginning. The same goes for the firm supplying the university’s HR system.
“In some cases, rather than trying to figure out how to have one unified mobile app for the campus, we’re finding partners that can provide us with a mobile experience for their particular thing,” said Johnson.
At Davidson, Clemmons says the focus is on creating a solid API strategy so IT can provide integrations and access to data regardless of what system is at the endpoint.
"The mobile part is easier when you go SaaS," said Chen. "It's the legacy systems that are difficult, if not impossible." For example, at Muhlenberg, the website is 6 years old and not at all mobile friendly. Instead, users have to “pinch and zoom all over the website,” he said.
The promise of the cloud
Though schools are turning to the cloud-based technology, many institutions are at an inbetween stage in their adoption, caught between solutions based on-prem and in the cloud. For many, the transition away from on-prem solutions will come in time.
“At least for me and the point where we are on our campus, things work,” said Ellen Borkowski, CIO at Union College. “Even though it's not necessarily efficient — very manual — but it works. Business goes on. Union is able to do what it needs to do for our students and we graduate students.”
Union is actively discussing future needs, particularly since the campus still relies on two major legacy ERPs, including one system that runs student information, advancement and admissions, and another that runs HR and finance. The college has had both of them for more than 25 years.
Even though transitioning off older systems can be tempting, and sometimes necessary, it is often disruptive to the business workflow and takes a significant investment of time to adapt users to new platforms.
"We have to keep our main systems running,” Borkowski said. "It's a balance between keeping the train running, but then trying to incorporate the new technology. That's always a challenge.”
Now, as vendors work to ramp up their offerings, on-prem solutions are phased out, replaced by service or cloud-based models.
Muhlenberg is starting to shift toward as-a-service models and looking into the public cloud, according to Chen. "We've already started shifting toward as-a-service in a strategic way, or sometimes out of necessity.”
“If you're forced to go cloud for products, is that a cloud strategy or cloud necessity?” Chen asked. “There are certain things they've done where the only way it's offered is cloud or we don't have the capacity for it, so we went Software-as-a-Service."
Freedom from older architecture
Getting off of older systems also has its benefits. At Union, Borkowski is encouraging various business units to look at the cloud “partly because, on my end, my staff aren't burdened with upkeep of hardware and maintenance of hardware here on premise.”
“As any typical IT organization, we are challenged with our resources. To be able to focus our staff expertise on other things besides keeping a machine running, it's really great,” Borkowski said. “We use our intellectual resources much better, more efficiently if we can focus them on the harder problems than just keeping machines running."
But agility becomes one of the most motivating factors to transition off legacy systems.
“That's why, I think, you see people going toward cloud, for instance,” Chen said. “You can do agility in very different ways with a built in disaster recovery plan that you can't generate through other methods. That agility is the same thing that's lost when you have a lot of really old legacy systems."
Some of the first places organizations look toward the cloud is with email. Muhlenberg, for example, chose Google as its email service provider because it didn’t make sense to keep running its system.
The same is true at Union where email systems used to be run on campus on two dedicated servers, one for the academic and the other the administrative community. Moving email to the cloud freed up two sys admins, allowing them to focus on new projects as well as planning out and implementing change in their virtual server environment.
With the increased flexibility, newer architectures or cloud-based solutions allow for a quicker adoption of new technology.
“I'd like the ability to actually respond quicker to the needs of the community as they get identified,” Borkowski said. “Now we identity need and we're talking a couple of months of implementation before they're going to see something or even longer, depending on what the project is."
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