Like many public sector institutions, the University of Minnesota has vast IT support needs. According to Shaun Enright, Cloudnexa's public sector vice president and general manager, these include high-performance computing, research and labs, business applications, storage, disaster recovery, video, collaboration and content management system applications. Add to this all the private data that comes with research, patients and hospitals, compounded with all the restrictions that come with state, federal and international laws, and you get a very demanding and risk-averse IT infrastructure.
"We have a research group that is currently running a fairly heavy application on about 20 virtual servers," said Kemal Badur, the University of Minnesota's (UMN) assistant director of IT. "They told us that, if their growth pattern held, they would need a thousand servers in two years. We looked at them and went, 'that's not going to happen.'"
The system challenges were symptomatic of a larger issue, one that emerged as the university grew and became more centralized. According to Badur, this centralization had caused an increase in policies and restrictions and a decrease in collaboration and innovation. UMN didn't just want better IT, they wanted to promote collaboration, to foster innovation and, in the words of Badur, to preserve their quirkiness.
"Our challenge was to find a cloud provider that was actually willing to sit down with us and negotiate as an institution that has these kinds of issues and not just somebody with a credit card who can pay monthly bills," Badur explained. Enright added that a lot of providers simply aren't prepared to delve into public sector IT. "There are a lot of companies out there that are just focused on commercial and haven't really figured out how to tap public sector just because the scale is so different and the way you've got to respond is so different and the onboarding process is so different."
At AWS re:Invent, Badur and Enright explored this very issue. Their session brought to light the advantages of bringing UMN to the cloud, as well as the challenges of drafting a strong Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) RFP (Request for Proposal) and executing a productive bid process. As UMN is the first institution to sign a university-wide cloud service provider (CSP) agreement, the insights shared during this session will be invaluable to those following in its footsteps.
Choosing a provider
"The most important thing to do is homework," Badur said. He advised that institutions look at how the cloud operates and then write an IaaS RFP based on this knowledge. "Of course, you're going to write it for your needs and for your requirements, but understanding what is possible for the cloud and what is not is key to doing this successfully." In other words, institutions need to be prepared for change on an organizational level. UMN couldn't just transfer old tools and processes to the cloud. They had to approach providers with a clean slate in order to capitalize on their potential. As Enright put it, "Even before their RFP was structured, they knew there were organizational aspects that had to be looked at and realigned."
We have a lot of things that we would like to try but, almost always, the cost of trying is too high.
Kemal Badur, UMN assistant director of IT
After UMN put in an RFP for IaaS, they selected two out of ten respondents. One was Cloudnexa, a consulting partner of Amazon Web Services (AWS). The other was undisclosed. Badur said the key to the bidding process was in asking the right questions. Instead of asking generically about development and pricing, the IT team presented specific scenarios and asked each provider how they would approach them. Badur believed this was the only way to gauge if their pricing and models were a fit for the institution.
UMN's IT team didn't stop there, however. According to Enright, they made sure everyone was involved. "They engaged their entire organization. That translates into a well-thought-out, structured RFP which, in turn, enables us to better communicate our value proposition." He went on to argue that leadership needed to fully participate in order for the organization to facilitate any change management necessary. UMN did just this with enthusiasm and rigor. "Not just their central IT group, but IT individuals across the university were really beginning to understand cloud over the last few years," Enright said. "Today they are living and breathing and demanding cloud infrastructure services to support their own initiatives."
When asked what this move to the cloud would change for UMN's IT operations, Badur said they now had a competitive advantage. It would be cheaper and easier to try new things and, most importantly, they could fail more quickly without disastrous consequences. They could innovate, knowing that they had a safety net in place that spanned the whole organization. Enright put it this way: "The university-wide contract for cloud services helps put the guard rails, best practices and processes in place so consumption can be monitored, managed, optimized."
But more than that, Badur believes their IT will be able to give the faculty and researchers access to cutting edge technology with minimal investment. They will be able to experiment more freely and often. "This being an institution of research and experimentation, we have a lot of things that we would like to try but, almost always, the cost of trying is too high. Anything that reduces that cost will make us more nimble and will allow us to do things that we couldn't otherwise do." Finally, and most importantly, the IT staff would spend less time on mundane tasks and would be able to focus their attention on supporting faculty and researchers in their projects. Enright condensed the cloud's main contribution into four words: "better research, better teaching."