Moving college to the cloud

How network monitoring helped UMUC reduce IT hardware by 97 percent

As colleges and universities look for ways to deliver more online services to students and faculty, they also want the best performance from their IT investments. For many, that means moving to the cloud. Whether your goal is lower operating costs or better application performance, it’s still a good business decision.

University of Maryland University College (UMUC) has fully embraced the cloud. Over almost three years we’ve reduced our physical IT infrastructure by almost 97 percent, from 1500 pieces of hardware to fewer than 100. We’ve used unified network monitoring throughout the process to make the transition easier, and to improve network performance.

Part of the University System of Maryland, UMUC is the largest public online university in the U.S., serving approximately 84,000  students worldwide from locations in College Park MD, Kaiserslautern, Germany and Yokota, Japan.  

Our IT networks support both the student population and approximately 5,000 faculty and staff. We use many third-party applications for a seamless classroom experience. For our administration, we also host internal support systems from document management systems to human capital management, which are currently hosted in the cloud. All of these applications need to be continually monitored and maintained.  

Picking up the pieces

When I started at UMUC almost three years ago, administration of the IT infrastructure was broken into pieces. We were a primarily on-site network operation, with five data centers around the world, and a huge amount of physical equipment. The decentralized operations meant we had five different network monitoring systems. None gave us a full view of our network’s health.

My first task was to bring together server, network engineering, application support, security operations and related engineering teams for the first time. To succeed, we needed a standardized system of record for how our networks and various systems were operating. After testing a variety of offerings, we settled on a product that could provide unified IT monitoring and management.

My next task was more challenging: Migrating anything we could to the cloud (in our case, Amazon Web Services). We were committed to reducing our physical IT infrastructure so that all we had on-premise were absolute necessities for our physical locations.

That was made considerably easier with unified network monitoring. For the first time ever, we were able understand what was communicating and interacting on various machines across all our locations. We were also able to make sure that the network was performing properly during that transition.

Unified network monitoring

As IT organizations have grown from “server monitoring” to “service monitoring,” we’ve all gotten to a point where we don’t necessarily care what the server is doing at the high level – just what it’s doing for our faculty, staff, and most importantly our students.  

With unified network monitoring, we’ve gone from not knowing anything about the IT environment to knowing basically all that’s knowable, both the good and bad. That was an eye-opener at UMUC. We suddenly had alerts of “bouncing” of services – things that were working intermittently or sporadically, or backend equipment that may not have been cleanly set up, which hampered application performance. We cleaned up many performance issues, and quickly identified points of poor performance.

At UMUC, reducing our physical IT infrastructure from 1500 pieces of gear to fewer than 100 around the world had several measurable benefits. Besides substantially reducing the cost of a physical IT network, we were able to leverage the cloud for redundant and scalable servers to accommodate our growing needs. (That’s to say nothing of saving on truck rolls for trouble-shooting problem hardware.)

Before you make the move

When considering a shift to the cloud, unified monitoring is essential. Here’s some practical advice:

  • Be comfortable with the application, and that it will scale to meet your needs.  
  • Consider SaaS. Some providers allow for either enterprise software or SaaS. SaaS requires less knowledge of the inner workings of the application, and does not require dedicated resources for training.
  • Get buy-in. In academia, management directives don’t always go over very well. Have a team member on your side so that the decision has grass roots acceptance.  

There’s a strong business incentive for moving your computing environment to the cloud. Unified network monitoring can give you visibility into both cloud and physical resources, to make the transition easier. I can’t imagine a world without that visibility.

—Greg Smith is Associate VP of Enterprise Operations at University of Maryland, University College. He can be reached at [email protected]  

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