Leverage the Cloud to Boost Efficiency

By Kim Tracy

IT Consolidation: What Every CIO Needs to Know

For many CIOs, the following scenario is all too familiar: You step into a new role at an organization and inherit a highly fragmented IT environment and are immediately charged with consolidating processes, infrastructure and services. Such was the case when I arrived at Northeastern Illinois University (NEIU) more than six years ago as the executive director of University Technology Services.

For many years, the University had no permanent IT head As a result, it found itself harboring a number of different departments with overlapping responsibilities, which created significant costs and operational inefficiencies.

As are many CIOs brought into a disjointed IT environment, I was tasked with creating an overarching vision to streamline the infrastructure to improve day-to-day operations and application functions. As a senior member of IEEE and the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), I drew upon ITIL (IT Infrastructure Library) best practices to serve as the framework for managing our IT services. The following are the major lessons learned while implementing an IT-consolidation program that not only met the University's current needs, but would support future IT demands as well

Plan for Future Growth, Not Current Needs

As part of our ERP implementation, we took the opportunity to refresh much of our aging hardware infrastructure. We implemented a Fujitsu storage area network (SAN) solution that provided us with a tiered storage capability--from Fibre Channel to SATA. We also upgraded the Sun Solaris servers that power the SunGard Banner ERP system.

Although we had more storage than we needed at the time, we wanted to implement a tiered storage solution that would meet the University's demands for years to come. Installing a storage solution that was able to meet impending demands--rather than merely maxing out the capacity of an existing solution prior to an upgrade--ensures that our infrastructure is prepared to handle any growth that comes our way.

Incremental Virtualization Proves Cost Effective

Virtualizing our servers was the next logical step in our IT consolidation program, for it allowed us to add new services and grow existing ones without acquiring more equipment. We evaluated different virtualization technologies, and, about five years ago, selected VMware, which is currently running on about 60 physical servers.

We are also leveraging virtualization capabilities on many of the Sun Solaris servers using Solaris Containers.  What's more, our upgrade to version 8 of the ERP solution based on SunGard Banner allowed us to use existing server capacity without purchasing additional Solaris boxes.

Consolidate Backup and Recovery to Same Time and Money

When I arrived at Northeastern Illinois University, Symantec NetBackup was part of the backup and recovery infrastructure; however, it was only used for the Solaris environment. A different solution was used for our Windows servers. With standardization at the forefront of my efforts to rationalize the university's IT environment, we opted to consolidate all backup and recovery to NetBackup.

We saw immediate results after the implementation. Previously, we had two team members managing backups -- one for our Windows servers and one for our Solaris environment. By standardizing everything onto this single platform we were able to reallocate the time that one of our staff members spent managing backups and the associated tasks.

Leverage the Cloud to Boost Efficiency

Our staff is severely overburdened with the challenge of managing existing IT services while also addressing new educational and operational requirements. Enter cloud computing. By moving IT services to the cloud, we can offload the complexity of the current IT environment and improve services to our faculty and students and provide the best learning experience possible.

Our first foray into cloud computing began with messaging security. Phishing and spear-phishing became onerous problems for the university, and dealing with them consumed much of our IT staff's time and energy. Our first response was to crank up inbound filtering with our previous appliance-based solution; however, this inevitably increased the number of false positives.

Network bandwidth was also a problem with our prior appliance-based solution. With more than 16,000 active mailboxes, and spam accounting for 80 percent of all mail, this translated into significant traffic. To handle the load of incoming mail, we purchased more network bandwidth, only to have it "eaten up" a few months later. Rather than have 200,000-plus spam messages pounding at my mail gateway everyday--and dealing with the resulting bandwidth issues--I wanted to make this someone else's problem by moving to a cloud solution.

To deal with this, we turned to the Symantec.cloud service. We are currently experiencing a number of targeted phishing attacks and have been working with Symantec to improve the ability to successfully block these targeted attacks.  We are pleased that these attacks have not resulted in NEIU's e-mail getting blacklisted by ISPs because of the number of compromised accounts caught by the service. Our e-mail is protected and going through.

Upgrade for Long-term Benefits

In the past, NEIU struggled with periodic security attacks, but since upgrading to this endpoint protection system--which offers advanced defense against all types of attacks for both physical and virtual systems--we haven't experienced quite so many malicious intrusions. The next step will be to further upgrade to Symantec Endpoint Protection 12, which provides enhanced virtualization support, a necessary feature since we plan to virtualize additional servers in the future.

Upgrading our identity management solution is also a key next step to providing unified access across all types of applications and different mobile devices. With a next-generation identity management solution in place--including seamless integration with our ERP system--we will be able to provide a personalized view based on the identity of the user. And while the potential impact of mobile devices and apps in education is just beginning it is inevitable, and we need to be prepared to meet these demands.

Instituting an IT consolidation program to simultaneously break down organizational silos, reduce costs, improve backup and tighten messaging security involves meticulous planning and the careful allocation of resources. However, by implementing a forward-looking strategy, CIOs can not only improve IT effectiveness but help an organization meet its operational goals.

About the Author

Kim Tracy is Executive Director of University Technology Services for Northeastern Illinois University.

This article was originally published on 02-02-2012