In the face of increasing demand for its online services, a Philadelphia college has found improved uptime performance, cost savings—and inexpensive disaster recovery—in the cloud.

A trifecta of needs—cost savings, business continuity, and disaster-recovery—has prompted Peirce College in Philadelphia to migrate much of its infrastructure to the cloud over the past 18 months. The college, which caters primarily to working adult learners, has seen more and more of its students using the school’s online educational services, putting pressure on IT to deliver 24/7 uptime and rapid recovery.

The introduction of Peirce Fit, a flexible study option that allows students to switch between online and on-campus study from week to week, lies behind much of this increase. “If you can take classes at 8 PM on a Wednesday night at home in your sweat pants, you’re going to choose that over being physically in another location at, say, midday during the week,” said Michael Mozeliak, director of IT at Peirce. “Students want to be able to access class whenever and wherever they are. As a result, we’re seeing a little bit more strain on the 24/7 uptime.”

The school also recognized that its infrastructure was dangerously vulnerable in the event of a disaster: The Peirce IT department, which houses the college’s servers, occupies a single building in the center of Philadelphia. “If anything happens to this building, we’re sunk,” said Mozeliak of the situation his team faced prior to the move to the cloud.

A Hurricane Decision

A few years ago, the college did maintain a co-location site in New Jersey to provide redundancy, but it sat only 15 miles from the Philadelphia campus. Hurricane Sandy, which devastated an entire region of New York and New Jersey in 2012, served as a warning that this kind of separation was insufficient. “I think Sandy played a big part in the decision for Peirce to start focusing on disaster recovery more than it had in the past,” said Mozeliak, but he also stressed that co-location sites tend to have their own problems. “A lot of the time, you end up putting yesterday’s technology over there because you don’t have the budget to buy new infrastructure.” This, in turn, can lead to slow performance and other issues.

Now, Peirce has turned to VMware’s vCloud Air Virtual Private Cloud to provide the reliability it needs as well as for disaster recovery. “We’ve been on VMware for nine years, so we’re very familiar with it,” said Mozeliak, noting that he has only a small team to run IT operations on campus. “It’s easy to use. Once the VMware cloud is set up, it requires the same skills we were using in-house to manage the environment on campus.”

(Next page: Uptime part of a much broader cloud plan)

Over the past year, the school has moved the school’s student accounts, housed in Active Directory, to VMware’s cloud, as well as some of its SQL services. After that, Mozeliak plans to move some of the college’s web services to the cloud, too. “This way, if anything happens to our physical location in Philadelphia, we’re still available in the cloud using VMware’s Virtual Private Cloud to allow our students to get to class,” he said.

Steps to a Broad Plan

The move is part of a broader migration to the cloud for the school. In the next 18 months or so, the school will abandon its current LMS for another service-based LMS platform, and Peirce already uses Google Apps for Education. On the administrative side, the college began implementation of Saleforce’s cloud-based CRM this month.

“This approach is much, much less expensive,” said Mozeliak. “We don’t have any hardware to buy or maintain—it’s just a subscription.” He’s particularly pleased with the pricing model used by VMware, which gives the school an agreed-upon amount of resources 24/7 that it can use as its sees fit.

“That’s been a really good move for us,” he added. “Some of the other vendors, like Google and Amazon, charge you per CPU cycle. That pricing model is extremely difficult to understand. It took me a long time to figure out our CPU usage on campus; I then tried to translate that usage into a cloud environment to gauge how much it would all cost. It becomes very cloudy.”

Mozeliak is less enamored of the firewall that comes free with the vCloud Air subscription. Peirce had been using Palo Alto Networks firewalls on campus and the VMware equivalent proved to be far less sophisticated. “As soon as we realized how simple the VMware firewall was, we installed Palo Alto’s virtual VM-100 appliances,” said Mozeliak. “Now we have Palo Alto Networks both in the virtual environment and in our campus environment. We know all the data between here and the cloud are completely secure, and we have 100 percent visibility into the traffic between us and the cloud and between the cloud and the web.”

Mozeliak is far happier with the privacy protections and security of the data stored within the vCloud Air environment, noting that VMware’s storage procedures are HIPAA compliant and accommodate FERPA regulations. “Our data center is in Virginia; our data is always in Virginia,” he said. “On some other platforms, you could be in China today and Japan tomorrow—you’re never really sure where your data is.”

While he emphasizes that privacy and security considerations must be addressed, Mozeliak also advises schools not to let these concerns prevent them from taking advantage of what the cloud has to offer. “We have students all over the United States and in several countries, so we’re a 24/7 shop,” he said. “We need our students to be able to access their classes whenever they want. Uptime and stability are a big deal.”

About the Author:

Andrew Barbour is a contributing editor with eCampus News.