University of the Sunshine Coast adopts Greenfield Cloud Analytics Solution

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Universities around the world are creating the next generation of employees and entrepreneurs; they are the petri dish of the future.

Not surprisingly they are also rapid adopters of new technology to support learning and research – but also to manage the complexities of a University.

The University of the Sunshine Coast is one of the youngest and fastest growing of Australia’s 39 universities – it turned 20 in 2016.  It offers over 170 undergraduate and postgraduate degrees, boasts more than 14,500 students, expects to reach 20,000 by 2020, and has consistently secured five star ratings for its teaching quality.

Established in 1996 as the first greenfields campus in Australia since 1975, USC predominantly serves the populations of Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, Fraser Coast, Gympie and northern Brisbane regions with campuses spanning the East Coast.

Information is inevitably the currency of any successful University. Ensuring that information is accessible, accurate, intelligible and actionable is what confers competitive advantage, and in today’s competitive higher education sector where success is measured in the quantity and calibre of students, alumni and academics that advantage is crucial.

Data and reporting landscape

Kerry Martin is the Director of the Strategic Information and Analysis Unit (SIAU) at USC. When she first joined the University as the Manager of Student Administration, she relied exclusively on Microsoft Excel for her insights.

Over the years, the information available to the University has continued to grow, and she recognises the ongoing value that lays therein. In 2012 the University began to construct what was always intended as an interim data collection to support reporting and compliance requirements using Microsoft Access.

Whilst the interim solution clung on longer than expected, it had semi-automated some fundamental data processing activities that would have otherwise been done manually by Analysts.

Luke Rowett, Manager for Data Warehouse and Business Intelligence at USC outlines the breadth of information available to the University’s – core systems around Students, HR, Finance, Research and other Administration systems. There is plenty of input into the systems and beyond that also a lot of disparate sources out in the business, faculties and schools – people collating data themselves.

The journey begins

By 2014 the University was ready to start a new journey, to lay the foundation to build a data warehouse and business intelligence solution that could leverage modern platforms, embarking on a Data Warehouse and Business Intelligence Strategy.

The Director, SIAU reinforces the importance of the initiative to the University. “We are a small institution nationally – but in terms of the complexity with compliance and reporting we are no different than a large institution.” She states that besides supporting reporting and compliance activities, the data warehouse and emerging analytics will support the University to enhance its core business, ensuring quality outcomes for students, both in terms of learning and research.

Work began in earnest in February 2016 and then, in May 2016, selecting Microsoft Azure and Microsoft Power BI for the Data Warehouse and Business Intelligence solution. By July, Rowett and his team demonstrated in a sandpit environment, some business intelligence capabilities that would be available to staff, replicating existing Business Intelligence reports in Power BI as a proof of concept.

Current focus, future vision

Initially the focus of the project is to establish a dynamic reporting platform to support University staff in evidence-based decision making, though longer term the University is planning to make greater use of analytics using Microsoft Power BI, Cortana Analytics in Azure and Windows 10 integration.

Rowett explains that in the past reports to executives were static, manually collated and could contain stale data. “We have now already demonstrated dynamic reporting in the cloud from a tablet. We showed a couple of reports that were previously static and demonstrated dynamically manipulating the data from the tablet.”

The Azure based data warehouse, combined with Power BI and SharePoint (also being relocated to the cloud) provides “a one stop shop for the staff to access their information,” says Rowett. He adds that out-of-the-box Power BI widgets will also make it simple to tailor reports on the fly and deliver insights to a user’s desktop, smartphone or tablet wherever and whenever they are needed.

USC is currently working with the business and analysts on ways to exploit Power BI functions to craft richer reports and focus on insights.

This project phase has been managed collaboratively between the Strategic Information & Analysis Unit and Information Technology Services and has been a great opportunity for the two areas to work closely on an enterprise-wide solution that is critical to the University’s ongoing success. The project team has been rolling out USC’s Data Warehouse and Business Intelligence environments – Dev, Test, UAT and Prod – with initial releases of Power BI dashboards occurring in November and December 2016. Work in integrating Power BI and SharePoint is currently underway to release into Production.

Cloud first

The first implementation for USC in Microsoft Azure is the Data Warehouse and Business Intelligence initiative which will be fully cloud based, one of the first of its kind in the Australian Higher Education sector.

While the University has adopted a cloud-first strategy for new projects, it anticipates a hybrid environment will persist over the coming years. It’s not the University’s first adventure with cloud; student and staff email is already provided by Microsoft in the cloud.

Besides the Data Warehouse and Business Intelligence solution there are plans to migrate USC’s SharePoint environment to the cloud. In the medium term it expects to see 20, then 40 per cent of all USC data being cloud based. It describes the Data Warehouse and Business Intelligence initiative as something of a litmus test for USC’s long term cloud plans.

According to Andrei Clewett, Director, ICT Solutions: “We will look at the cloud offerings and analyse our rate of investment over five years. I doubt we would get to 100 per cent in five years – and we may never be there. We will probably always have some storage on premises. Being a University there is a lot of scientific equipment and the storage needs to be located next to it – may be a visualisation or a microscope – it makes sense to have the data here.”

Further pragmatism comes from the University’s approach to costs. Analysis showed that using Microsoft Azure was actually likely to prove more expensive than remaining with existing on premise data storage. Clewett explains however that the future benefits that Azure promised in terms of scale and access to communities on the cloud was recognised as an important investment in USC’s future.

This wasn’t just a cost for today – but a down-payment on the future.

When all else fails

Moving to the cloud is also expected to deliver USC with a series of disaster recovery benefits thanks to the more regular snapshotting of data which should reduce recovery times if disaster strikes. In addition, the geo-redundancy that comes from Microsoft’s two Australian data centres provides an additional level of resilience.

The physical location of the data centres was critical in selecting Microsoft as the cloud partner of choice for USC. The University has a long history with Microsoft technology and platforms, recognises the company as a trusted partner, and uses Office 365, SharePoint, OneDrive and Surface devices – it even boasts a couple of Hololenses, and it is about to embark on a major Windows 10 migration – but had Azure not been available in Australia it would have been a deal-breaker.

Change management sparks success

One important bi-product of the initiative is that USC’s IT staff have learned new skills which Clewett says provides an important career pathway from legacy technologies that are ready for retirement. “This gives them a path into DevOps” by learning PowerShell and .NET skills he adds.

In addition, staff across the University are being informed about the initiative. Since the cloud based solution promotes a more self-service reporting model, staff are being skilled for these different roles, ensuring that they – like the technology platform itself – are future-proofed. Staff are being encouraged to collaborate and make use of the new technologies and what they permit.

Gearing up for Windows 10

USC is planning to migrate its 3,200-strong inventory of Windows-based hardware and Surface Pro 3s and 4s to Windows 10 starting in January. A staff pilot is underway before the full rollout of Windows 10 early in 2017.

Students, most of whom have their own devices, are also being offered a free copy of Windows 10 and access to Office 365. Says Black; “The nice thing with Microsoft’s offering is that it is platform agnostic – users can access OneDrive and Word across different platforms. People can transition between Office, Mac and Windows and their Android phone – all the information is still available to them.”

Microsoft partnership

The close relationship between USC and Microsoft is expected to sustain over many years with projects already underway using the HoloLens, and plans to use a richer array of Azure analytics and natural language processing to deliver even greater insight and advantage to the University.

USC is interested also in perhaps constructing a data-lake on Azure and leveraging Azure’s Internet of Things services as it rolls out new campuses, in order to track and control energy consumption, mechanical cooling and infrastructure usage.

In this particular petri dish, the future looks bright.