Working in the Clouds

Working in the Clouds

How a SaaS web CMS can help manage budget while improving responsiveness

In the higher education world, IT systems and services are more vital than ever for institutions to achieve their goals and satisfy their missions. One vital system in particular is the institutional website. This technology is the online presence for an institution and has become an extraordinary tool for reaching current and prospective students, parents, and alumni and helping them connect with the respective college or university. Without this tool, most institutions would suffer greatly in their efforts to recruit and retain students and build long-term relationships.

According to a 2009 Noel-Levitz E-Expectations study, 88 percent of prospective students were reported as saying they would be disappointed or drop a college or university from their list if that institution's website was not current or did not provide them with the information they need. This just confirms with most institutions' internal reports that illustrate the need for an updated, accurate web presence to serve their key audiences. And this statistic is only increasing as prospective students become more aggressive in their search for a post-high school education.

The web has become much more than a place where visitors can view information about programs and campus life. It has become an interactive tool that not only offers information but also allows for communication with site visitors in the form of communities. For many institutions, it has become the central hub for communications outreach, utilizing a variety of outputs such as RSS, XML, mobile devices, and social media applications. More and more, content and communications on the web are being served through alternative platforms and systems. A leading example is the rapid growth of mobile computing in higher education. The higher education web system clearly has become a vital strategic asset.

For anyone currently involved in the web world, cloud computing definitely has been getting its share of attention. Whatever the belief, cloud computing is becoming a viable solution for many technology needs throughout higher education, including an institution's web presence. It allows institutions to achieve their strategic web goals of doing more with less and doing things better and faster.

With cloud computing, applications essentially reside in the "cloud" (better known as the internet) rather than on local machines. This form of computing helps minimize hardware and software acquisition, management, and maintenance costs for an organization because the application provider manages all the hardware and software and delivers their applications as a service over the internet. Software as a Service (SaaS) is a type of cloud computing that allows customers to license enterprise-level software that is deployed through the internet and supported by experienced and reputable solution providers.

Utah Valley University (UVU) turned to a SaaS solution for a web content management system (CMS) to help achieve its strategic web goals and better control budget expenditures. Implementation of the CMS led to the ultimate success of the entire Web Development Services (WDS) group at UVU. Along the way, they realized cost, technical, management, and other SaaS-related benefits.

Cloud computing allows institutions to achieve their web goals of doing more with less, better and faster.

Another example of a cloud computing solution is Google Analytics, which allows institutions to track and analyze the traffic and visitor patterns on their websites. E-mail service is also an extensively used cloud computing technology. Many people have an e-mail account in the cloud that is seen as a viable, stable, reliable solution for specific communication needs. Suffice it to say, cloud computing is here and many people use it without thinking twice.

It is a natural progression for colleges and universities to look to this type of technology solution to solve their technology and budgetary needs. In many cases, cloud technologies have helped institutions expand their web systems to meet audience expectations and keep within new resource constraints. As with any solution, one must determine if it is right for their needs and meets their criteria for success.

Historically, IT departments have opted for local installation and implementation of most services. This has been the typical hardware/software model of implementing technology. It is sometimes perceived that having a traditional hardware/software solution can grant the IT department greater control, security, and reliability. However, in many cases, cloud solutions are just as secure, just as reliable, and still give the IT department the control that is desired and required. Cloud computing is becoming the norm for many services such as website traffic stats, e-mail, and social media solutions.

A web CMS is an example of a system that can be deployed using the traditional hardware/software model or as a SaaS-based solution. A web CMS allows the content of your website to be maintained and updated by many individuals and generally eliminates the need for content contributors and editors to be web development or programming savvy. Such a system enables the technology layperson to create, maintain, and update information on their website without the use of technology tools typically used by web developers and programmers. Web CMS solutions have become vital mainstream systems for many higher education web groups over the past several years.

A SaaS-based CMS leverages the power of the cloud to provide a fully functional CMS solution to the institution, often with improved speed and performance. It allows the institution to free up its resources and man-hours from server purchases, hardware maintenance, and upgrading. Essentially, the cloud-based solution does the heavy lifting associated with an enterprise-scale CMS, because responsibility of managing it is on the vendor. It allows the institution to reallocate those freed resources and man-hours to other web needs.

Traditional CMS solutions require multiple servers to be housed locally at the institution. In most cases, this is a three-server solution: staging server, database server, and production server. In some cases, a fourth server is added to the system for publishing the content to the production server in some scheduled manner. To compound the solution further, most institutions must then duplicate that hardware to create a fully functional test system to allow for offline testing of upgrades, maintenance issues, and database services. These servers typically are fairly large and powerful boxes. This can equate to an ongoing financial requirement for upgrade and maintenance of the hardware. Along with that responsibility, there is the fiscal requirement of dedicating man-hours to the management of these boxes.

The management of six servers and a database system is no small task for an institution to handle. UVU found this to be the case as they implemented several CMS solutions based on the traditional hardware/software model. Through their experience, changing needs, and fiscal pressures, UVU found they needed something different, something more.

The web presence for UVU (formerly Utah Valley State College) started in 1995 with an online catalog. With the popularity of web browsers, the demand for online content became increasingly difficult for the WDS department to fulfill. Their model was the old "send it to us and we will post/change it for you," which was creating a bottleneck of severe magnitude. The users were then granted FTP access to specific areas of the institution's website and the bottleneck was reduced. Within a couple short years, UVU's web presence was riddled with inconsistencies, unusable content, and confusing navigation. The need for a more controlled system was obvious. In 2003, the first true CMS solution was put into place. This was a great leap forward, but the needs of the institution's web presence were not well defined and the CMS was quickly falling short of the growing demands.

For the next several years, UVU tried to implement a handful of CMS solutions. Several open source solutions were considered and a few were implemented. Software costs definitely dropped, but the support and maintenance needs grew rapidly due to ill-supported vendor systems. Once the needs grew beyond what could be supported, several commercial CMS products were considered and one was chosen.

This new system was made to solve all of UVU's CMS needs. It was of an enterprise caliber, well supported by the vendor, and was very robust in its feature set and capabilities. After a significant amount of resources were put into implementing the system, it was apparent that even with all of its bells and whistles, it was still not well suited for UVU's needs. The system's power and robust feature set did not outweigh the users' demands for simple and easy. The needs of the users were overlooked for the power and complexity of the new system. Needless to say, the system did not work for UVU and another solution had to be found.

Once the decision was made to move to a SaaS CMS solution, the real work began.

The decision to look for yet another CMS and the announcement of the college becoming a university were two events that came together at the right time. These events gave UVU the opportunity to rethink everything they had done so far in the web CMS sphere. Another announcement from CMS vendor OmniUpdate came about the same time that put UVU in a position to reconsider their SaaS solution, which was one UVU had tested quite extensively in the beginning. The vendor had announced the use of XML as their new base technology for content, which is also the foundation to UVU's web presence. Having content in a standard format, such as XML, was one of the key requirements of UVU's web CMS search criteria.

All these events led UVU to give the SaaS solution another look. Upon researching needs and requirements and looking into the vendor's feature set and proof of concept, it was determined that UVU would undergo a full implementation of their web CMS as a SaaS solution. The solution brought together XML's standardized technology that the WDS group at UVU needed, increased ease of use and simplicity for users, and the feature set UVU required. The cloud-based SaaS deployment option was an added benefit.

Initially, UVU did not go in search of a cloud-based SaaS application for their CMS solution. Yet, after the experience gained through trial and error of several CMS solutions, UVU found the SaaS option to have advantages for its particular needs. UVU found that SaaS offered fiscal savings in hardware costs and a fairly significant savings in man-hours and personnel time within the IT departments. And the benefits were more than just financial. The speed and responsiveness of the system was very appealing to UVU's CMS users and the simple nature of the interface and easy-to-use feature set readily met what the users were looking for.

There was some concern that the WDS group and CMS users were not prepared to deal with the perceived disadvantages--loss of control, lack of security, and lack of ability to handle UVU's complex needs. However, after many hours of research and discussion, UVU determined that the benefits of using this SaaS solution were worth any hesitation they had about moving a critical system to the cloud.

Once the decision to move to the SaaS CMS solution was made, the real work began. UVU implemented the system according to its information architecture model and moved all the university's web pages into the new system. The university has a centrally maintained IT infrastructure, including the web systems, and a decentralized model of content experts and control. Each department has content contributors that now use the CMS templates to create and maintain their content on the web. This allows the departments to do what they need, while keeping within an organized marketing and branding message. It also allows a consistent experience for UVU students as they use the university's website in their education.

A typical concern of a SaaS solution is security of data. This is usually a two-sided issue: transmission of data and storage of the data. The SaaS CMS and UVU addressed this issue by keeping all data transmissions and connections between the systems encrypted through secure SFTP and SSL. The data being stored is content that is available through the public web. Any sensitive or personal data is still secured in the UVU server system, not at a vendor site, and is then interfaced with web pages that can securely access the sensitive data.

There was another concern about control of the infrastructure. With the SaaS CMS servers sitting in the cloud, the IT office at UVU would not have direct access to these servers and, therefore, could not respond to downtime in the same manner as a local solution. This concern ended up as an added benefit with the solution UVU put in place. UVU found the selected SaaS CMS to have the reliability and stability needed to remove any downtime concerns. As a result of this stability and the production web server still being located in the UVU datacenter, the UVU web has never been more reliable and available for maintenance.

UVU also had concerns about needs outside the scope of the CMS. However, UVU found that when the SaaS CMS doesn't fit their needs, they can quickly and easily adapt other solutions to plug into the SaaS CMS to solve the need. One example is UVU's calendaring system. Though the SaaS CMS offered a calendaring system, UVU had unique requirements from the campus and, therefore, created an in-house calendaring application. UVU was able to integrate this application into the SaaS CMS to fill their requirements.

Before the implementation of the SaaS CMS, users had many problems with the performance of the editing process and the page publishing process. UVU tracked average time spent on editing and publishing, in an effort to continually improve its processes. Content creators were not happy that it would take them up to 30 minutes to make a simple change on a page and then have to wait up to 24 hours for that change to actually be published to the web. Frustrations reached the point that UVU leaders demanded the system be fixed or abandoned completely.

 

After the SaaS solution was implemented, users were able to create and edit their pages very quickly. Users and WDS saw a great improvement in all aspects of the editing and publishing process. For example, tracking the time now spent editing and publishing, the average editing time dropped from 30 minutes to two minutes (see Figure 1 below), and the average publishing time dropped from six hours to less than 10 seconds. The speed and performance of the system were just what the users needed.

 

Not only were performance and speed improved dramatically, the savings to the WDS budget became very apparent. Before UVU implemented the SaaS solution, the WDS group estimated it was dedicating 57 man-hours per week to CMS system administration and database responsibilities as shown in Figure 2 below. Once the SaaS solution was in place, we measured a drop in man-hours to an average of 5.5 hours per week. This was a savings of 51.5 hours per week (1.2 FTE) and a 91 percent savings in man-hour costs. Those hours then could be used for other projects or reduced for budgetary needs.

The savings on UVU hardware costs were just as significant. As mentioned, most traditional CMS solutions typically require a three-server configuration to run properly: staging server, database server, and production server. This setup is used to keep the data separate from the web server and allows for the publishing process. Before the SaaS implementation, UVU implemented a four-server configuration with the additional server used to manage the publishing process. They had significant problems every time an upgrade was performed. Because of this problem, the vendor suggested implementing a full duplicate of the UVU server in a test environment so the university could test all upgrades before going into production. If UVU had followed this suggestion, they would have added three to four more servers.

 

UVU hardware costs were quickly becoming a problem. Once they implemented the SaaS solution, however, they went from a six-server configuration to a one-server configuration. The reduction of these servers and the reduced demand on the UVU datacenter space resulted in a cost savings of $58,000 initially and an estimated $10,000 annually in savings from removing necessary hardware/software upgrades (see Figure 3).

Another sense of achievement came from the CMS users and the improvements UVU could make with its new savings. Users found the system to do most everything they needed it to do. And, they found that it had those features in a simple, easy-to-use, streamlined interface and process. This was the better "savings" for the institution. UVU's WDS had struggled for years to get different departments to own their web content, but received flak because the tools given to them were hard to use and counterproductive.

 

WDS found other great improvements through the SaaS solution as well. Instead of spending all day fixing problems created by the CMS and fielding support calls from irate users, the WDS group could focus on growing the CMS system and looking for new tools for increased web features and upcoming technologies.

UVU's SaaS web CMS use requires a strong relationship with the vendor. This was important to UVU's web success with this type of cloud computing technology. When systems are no longer in the datacenter on campus, the relationship with the vendor becomes critical. It was important to UVU that the SaaS vendor be responsive and willing to incorporate UVU ideas for future developments, features, and maintenance issues.

Since UVU moved to cloud computing for its web CMS, life has noticeably improved. UVU now has a CMS user base that can do what they need, quickly and easily, and are emboldened to ask new questions like, "Can we do this cool thing on the web?" This contributes to UVU's ability to be innovative with its web presence.

Expectations for future possibilities from UVU's SaaS CMS have brought about renewed enthusiasm. UVU is currently working on a mobile web initiative that is powered by XML, an improved mapping system, a redesigned and improved search system, and an improved CMS training and support initiative. The WDS team expects their web systems to continue to grow and progress to keep up with the growing and changing web needs of UVU students and other audiences.

For any institution, questions must be asked and answered to determine if any technology solution is right for them. A thorough needs assessment should always be conducted and a full requirements list should be drafted from those needs. The chosen solution must fit those requirements as closely as possible. Without meeting the needs of the users, no system will work.

Are cloud-based solutions right for you? Should you move your CMS to the cloud? These are questions only you can answer based on your needs and constraints. For UVU, the move to a SaaS-based CMS was the right one at the right time, with great results for the WDS team and its users.

Nathan Gerber is director of web development services at Utah Valley University.


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