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A complete overhaul
20-year-old technology to seamless integration
Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2011
By Robert Frank, WSU News
Viji Murali, vice president of information services and chief information officer, in front of high performance computing cluster that is dedicated to research use. Photo by Robert Hubner, WSU Photo Services.
Major steps completed so far in WSU technology renovation include:
The changes include a broad-spectrum of sorely needed updates to the university's ailing computer system, Web portal, telephone system, software and computer infrastructure. The results are changing the way WSU does business and communicates, and ultimately will save taxpayers money and improve services.
Years in the making
For the past decade, WSU has been scrambling to catch up with the rapid changes in technology, and to meet the needs of research faculty and students. But the changes were far too rapid and funding was not provided by the state.
Realizing the university's vulnerability, one of the first executive appointments President Elson S. Floyd made after his arrival at WSU in May 2007 was that of Viji Murali, vice president of information services and chief information officer.
Murali's assignment was not only to bring the university up to speed, but to make WSU a technological leader in higher education.
Within four months of her hire, Murali reviewed and implemented a previously completed study of the university's information systems. As part of that process, she evaluated and reorganized her division, and worked with staff to chart an aggressive course to the future, with firm deadlines leading to several strategic targets:
- employing high-speed bandwidth
- updating the university's portal system
- establishing a supercomputer center
- updating connective wiring on the Pullman campus
- updating the university's core computing systems
- landing state funding for the update
- creating a single learning management system (LMS)
- consolidating videoconferencing systems
- creating a technology store
- creating a wireless (Wifi) campus
Since then, additional goals have been added to Information Services' (IS) strategic plan, including updating the university's e-mail system, improving security, updating WSU Pullman's main server facility, updating the Pullman campus phone system and adding a laptop rental program for students.
End of an era
The computer programs being replaced are non-integrated, legacy systems — programs designed from scratch by WSU personnel. And, although the aging system addressed a wide array of student and employee information — from admissions to registration, financial aid, transcripts, tuition, payroll and benefits, purchasing, budgeting, etc. — there was very little integration among the applications. Consequently, information was not easily shared, and departments often operated in silos.
The challenges these legacy programs posed were multiplied by the fact that they were hosted on 20-year-old mainframe technology that was prone to potential breakdowns.
Similarly, the telephone equipment on the WSU Pullman campus was more than 20 years old, resulting in no manufacturer support and parts being purchased on Ebay.
These legacy systems have served the university faithfully for two decades, but now are woefully out of date.
WSU's new computing and communications solutions includes several major components.
Updating WSU Pullman's aging central computer server system was a task that required immediate attention. Within weeks of her arrival Murali decided to move the university from its traditional model, using mainframe and stand-alone servers, to a virtual server room model.
In layman's terms, a mainframe is a very large, powerful computer. Stand-alone servers are smaller, but independently run servers. There were several problems with this approach — the mainframe and stand-alone servers took up a large amount of space; they did not work together to share resources; they required a lot of money and manpower for programs and operation; they consumed a lot of electricity; and server room space was very limited.
Virtualization, on the other hand, utilizes a large number of compact "blade or pizza box" servers, that are stacked tightly into vertical racks, share resources, require less cooling and power, and can be moved about as needed on the fly.
"Picture it as similar to houses vs. condominiums," said Murali. "With condominiums you have shared resources — a central swimming pool, a common park, aggregate parking, a shared roof, and lower costs. Virtualization allows us to aggregate our resources, save space, use less energy, and be extremely flexible in moving resources where needed."
The decision was relatively easy, the transition, however, would require several years and a substantial amount of funding. In order to ensure stability and buy the time required to make that transition, Murali updated the university's core mainframe server equipment before the end of 2007.
Today, WSU's main server room is dominated by aggregate or virtual servers, that link together hundreds of compact servers, providing the campus with a much faster, more stable and efficient computing environment.
In time, the university's legacy servers and software will be phased out, but that will require a bit more time and funding.
Zzusis portal project
- academic advising
- campus community
- campus self-service
- financial aid
- student financials
- student records
Eventually, zzusis will host and coordinate nearly all student information.
"We're doing all this in stages," said Viji Murali, the university's vice president of information services and chief information officer. "You never want to do this all at once. You want to make sure it works well, and appropriate training and support is available."
Perfect evidence of that came on Aug. 22, when a tidal wave of students from the WSU's largest fall enrollment in history started logging into the portal to check and manage their schedules. Shortly after, the system came to a virtual halt. The issue with the zzuis portal stemmed from a simple configuration setting that inadvertently had been overlooked. Together the IS and Oracle staffs pinpointed the issue within several hours, corrected the setting, and had the zzusis system back up and handling the increased traffic smoothly.
High performance computing cluster
The third major component is a high performance computing (HPC) cluster brought online late this spring. The configuration of this computing system was charted out by a committee of WSU researchers who met for several months in 2010 analyzing the best alternatives available. In the end they chose what's referred to as a "distributed memory architecture."
The HPC cluster boasts contains 164 computers or nodes, and each node has 12 core processing units. (All totaled, that's 1,968 computer processors.)
In addition, each node boasts 512 gigabytes of memory or RAM (about 100-250 times more than the average high-speed desktop computer). So aggregately the system offers 3.8 terrabytes of memory. (A terabyte is 1,000 gigabytes.)
With all that power under the hood, the HPC center clocks speeds four times faster than any external connection available on campus.
The HPC cluster is designed to process as much information as possible in the shortest amount of time. And, because it is designed in clusters, multiple research faculty members can utilize it simultaneously.
VoIP telephones and classroom tools
Computers were not the only systems requiring updating. WSU Pullman's phone system, in addition to being several generations old, could not interface with current technology. So, during the first seven months of 2011, standard phones and wiring were replaced with digital voice-over-internet-protocol (VoIP) technology that can handle far more capacity at a lesser cost.
For the average user this overall project means a dramatic improvement in computer services and easier access. The zzusis portal project ultimately will provide students with single-login access to their academic records, Cougar credit card information, tuition and financial aid data, class schedules, university and emergency news, library resources, Angel classroom accounts, etc. In time, employees also will have access to many of these services.
The portal also will allow authorized faculty and staff to access, manage and share data regarding student records, admissions, registration and grades, as well as a range of other news and personal information. As a result, it will eliminate information silos and duplication; enhance collaboration, computing speed, efficiency and security; and ensure long-term stability.
Some information — like the university's financial, budget and payroll information — will remain in-house on the mainframe, until it can be replaced. Meanwhile, the new core system will allow departments to better share this information.
These improvements come at a great time, in that they will help counterbalance the monumental-sized cuts in state budgeting and staffing that WSU has been hammered with annually for the past four years.
Enterprise system technology
One major difference in this overall technological update is that Murali has moved the university away from in-house designed computer programs to enterprise system technology — systems developed by major manufacturers. This provides the university with several advantages.
First, the computer programs are constantly being developed and updated by the manufacturers, which helps ensure that the university will stay abreast of future changes in the technology industry.
Second, it offers the university an economy of scale. One or more programs can be used to serve a multitude of campuses, colleges or departments. Plus, it allows WSU to serve the campus with a smaller base of IS staff. This trend is already in place, as many IS personnel have retired over the past four years, and numerous positions have been left unfilled due to budget cuts.
Third, it provides the university with leverage to purchase programs and equipment at a reduced cost — similar to a family buying an umbrella insurance policy from one underwriter.
For these same reasons, Viji said she intends to move the university toward an enterprise-based content management system (CMS) for managing websites. That CMS, she said, will need to integrate well with the zzusis project system.
The selection and implementation of a universitywide CMS is still about 12-18 months out, because ITS needs to focus its full attention on completing the current zzusis project. However, Murali said she is preparing to select a campuswide committee that will analyze the CMS needs and enterprise options available, and prepare a plan to test and institute transition.
Still to come
Additional improvements to WSU's computer and communications systems also are scheduled, and include:
- Planning phase two of the enterprise system, including customer relationship management (CRM), human resources, payroll and financial modules that will integrate with zzusis
- Providing a short-term solution for online travel reimbursement
- Doubling the university’s bandwidth to accommodate increased the freshmen count
- Increasing the density of wireless coverage on campus
- Designing, building or procuring mobile applications
- Developing a fully tested computer disaster recovery system
- Upgrading the videoconferencing system to be an almost self-service application
- Shrinking the foot print of machines in the server room to reduce resource consumption through virtualization or contracting with hosted and managed service providers
The zzusis project, as now outlined, is scheduled to be complete by August 2012.
"Given the ongoing budget reductions, we're having to make some difficult choices to keep costs down and to prevent customizing these programs," said Murali. "We cannot do everything we'd like in this project. But overall, we are on course, on time and on budget, and we don't expect to go over budget."
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Contact: Viji Murali, WSU's vice president of information services and chief information officer, 509-335-8017, firstname.lastname@example.org