If moving to the cloud is a journey, at the University of Sunderland we’ve mapped the route, passed some key landmarks and have the destination in sight. But staying on course is an ever-developing journey.
Migrating to the cloud is making our IT services more agile
A few years ago, working with a traditional IT set-up and our own on-site datacentres, it was becoming increasingly difficult to accurately predict how much compute and storage we needed to support the business through a period of significant change. There was always the risk when undertaking large capital programmes that we might pay for capacity we didn’t need or, conversely, that we wouldn’t have enough, and it would take time to scale up.
Migrating to a scalable and flexible cloud provision felt like a good solution – although it was largely unproven in higher education (HE) institutions at the time.
Understanding the cost
Making the business case seemed like a challenge. The university was facing expected capital expenditure of more than £3m to refurbish and upgrade our datacentre infrastructure, so this helped us advocate for a move to cloud. Choosing cloud offered the prospect of moving the large one-off cost into the operating expenses budget so we would be able to invest the money only when it was needed. But this was very different to the financial model we were used to.
We also had detailed financial information from our Jisc Financial X-ray. It helped us break down where and how we were spending our IT budget and resource and gave us benchmarking data to compare our IT spending with other institutions. It showed that we were spending less than most – largely because we had invested upfront in the past – but it highlighted that we should spend more per student in future to keep up with technology improvements and new ways of working.
From the X-ray we also saw that our IT department was quite small compared with universities of a similar size. Knowing this helped us define our direction. We decided to engage with a managed services company to handle the complex transition to the cloud environment, so we could focus on the university’s digital transformation and on developing the digital capabilities of staff in the wider institution. This was key to getting the best out of our adoption of Azure datacentres as we also adopted Microsoft 365 as part of the move to cloud.
In all, our migration took a year of planning before we kicked off the move itself in 2018, and it should be complete in about a year from now. Moving at a careful pace has given us time to assess carefully how to move systems into the cloud without disrupting services to our students and staff. It is important to get this right because setting up a cloud environment isn’t a cheap option; we wanted to avoid having to run two environments simultaneously while we ironed out the complexities in the operation.
Already, we’ve been able to simply retire over 100 servers from the estate and we can see how cloud, using a managed services provider and adopting software as a service (SaaS), makes us more effective and agile. Because all our students are now using Microsoft 365, we were able to move all learning and teaching online within a matter of weeks when COVID hit, via Office 365, our virtual learning environment (VLE) and Teams. The university’s core business of learning and teaching has continued remotely as has the management and administration of our infrastructure, while people have been unable to regularly visit campus in over a year.
Upskilling the IT team
Using a managed services provider has also meant we can make good progress on our journey while we develop our own team’s expertise in cloud. You can’t duck the need to upskill constantly; in cloud things are developing fast. As functionality develops at pace so have the skills of our staff - on almost a weekly basis - and this has led to much greater understanding of how the IT environment can support our business.
But first we had to make sure people had the right mindset. In traditional IT teams, people are comfortable working in datacentres, building servers and handling kit. Cloud means they have to do much less of all this, and it is inevitable that the initial discussion meant that some people had concerns about their roles. Some staff will leave as they wish to work in a more traditional environment; however, the ones who stay and take on the challenge, learn new skills and embrace new job roles are usually much more able to future proof their skills. Our network engineers are becoming cloud architects and will take on more elements of managing cloud for the university in future. Far from reducing headcount, we have increased ours and we are supporting all the university’s campuses both in the UK and overseas.
David and Daniel will be talking more about the University of Sunderland’s journey to cloud at Networkshop49. Networkshop49 is an online event running from 27–29 April 2021. Tickets are now available to book (free to Jisc member organisations).