Curtin University in Perth, Australia, offers students a lifelong web-based resource called iPortfolio that supports reflective learning while students are at university and provides a useful job-hunting tool after they graduate. To permanently host the ever-growing amount of iPortfolio data was a daunting storage challenge for Curtin IT staff, and their original solution was expensive and difficult to scale. With the help of Microsoft Gold Certified Partner Intergen, the university has moved iPortfolio data and computing resources to the Windows Azure platform. By moving to a cloud-based platform, Curtin has reduced data storage costs, simplified IT resource planning, streamlined development, and enabled exciting enhancements to the iPortfolio application.
In 1986, the Western Australian Institute of Technology in Perth became Curtin University of Technology, and since then Curtin University has grown into a global education enterprise with teaching locations across Australia and Southeast Asia. Curtin conducts degree programs in 10 countries, and it offers courses at more than 90 universities in 20 countries. The university has Australia’s third-largest international student population, with more than 40,000 students from more than 100 nations.
Curtin has designed its degree programs to help prepare students for the workplace immediately upon graduation. The university recognizes the importance of technology in an increasingly internationalized business world, so students not only study the latest technologies, they also use them as part of their education. Realizing that the days of static, text-based learning have passed, Curtin created a dynamic web-based tool for students and staff called iPortfolio.
“iPortfolio is a personal learning space,” explains Heath Wilkinson, Director of Business Systems at Curtin University. “Students capture and upload learning materials—articles, photos, videos, and more—from within their courses and from external sources. They then use iPortfolio to reflect on these materials, journal about their learning, collaborate with peers, elicit feedback, and even develop an electronic portfolio to present to prospective employers.”
||Because we can use and pay for Windows Azure storage on demand, as we need it, it’s easy to meet our ever-increasing capacity needs and predict what our ongoing costs will be.
Director of Business Systems, Curtin University
Students can use iPortfolio to track their performance against the required graduate attributes for their degree program. Graduate attributes include the skills and knowledge that students are expected to acquire during their studies. iPortfolio offers students a place to gauge their progress and get input from others about their progress. Students can control who is able to view their iPortfolio data, and they can set up a personal profile similar to social-networking sites.
Curtin designed iPortfolio as a lifelong resource, and the university intends to host students’ portfolios indefinitely. Curtin IT staff built the initial version of iPortfolio in late 2009 with Adobe ColdFusion running on an Oracle database, with a storage area network (SAN) as the data repository. Within the first six months of the launch, IT staff realized there were limitations to that configuration.
“Maintaining iPortfolio data for all current and former students presents a huge storage challenge,” notes Wilkinson. “We need high-quality, highly reliable, highly scalable storage that can be managed easily and cost- effectively, but the SAN can be expensive and difficult to expand. We needed an alternative storage strategy that we could implement without compromising functionality and performance.”
Because the original iPortfolio system was hosted and managed in-house, the Curtin IT team was responsible for all aspects of support and maintenance, including data backup and disaster recovery planning. “We support a huge number of applications across the university,” says Wilkinson. “Part of our strategy has been to reduce the amount of direct IT support required—not just for managing storage, but for administration and networking as well—so we can free up IT capacity for other projects.”Solution
The development of iPortfolio has coincided with an ongoing shift in the university’s IT strategy. “Our Chief Information Officer has very clear cloud-based strategies for our IT growth going forward,” says Wilkinson. “We’re trying to move from a capital-intensive IT budget to a utility-based computing model where computing resources become an operating expense instead of a capital investment.”
Curtin began investigating the Windows Azure platform as a replacement for the existing Oracle and SAN system in early 2010. Windows Azure offers a highly scalable cloud-based environment for hosting, development, and service management, with a pay-as-you-go cost model and a worldwide network of data centers. The product made a lot of sense in the context of the university’s IT environment. “We already use Microsoft Live@edu [link] communication and collaboration services for student email, and we’re confident that over time the Microsoft online offerings will become stronger and more tightly integrated,” says Wilkinson. “Also, the Windows Azure service offering fits our application development processes better than other cloud providers. It really was an easy choice for us.”
|Figure 1: iPortfolio allows students to document and reflect on their learning |
by gathering and presenting materials in a variety of electronic formats.
In addition to training developers on Windows Azure, Curtin enlisted the aid of New Zealand–based company Intergen, a Microsoft Gold Certified Partner and expert in Windows Azure development and deployment. Although Curtin developers did most of the actual programming, Intergen provided architectural guidance and additional training, and it helped the university develop a migration strategy that would streamline the move from one system to the other without disrupting the iPortfolio service.
“The developers at Curtin didn’t want to rewrite the whole application,” explains Chris Auld, Director of Strategy and Innovation at Intergen. “We helped modularize it so it can be moved piecemeal to the cloud. We made only minor changes to the original on-premises application.”
Curtin developers used the Microsoft Visual Studio 2010 development environment and Microsoft ASP.NET web forms to make the necessary modifications to the application. They then began moving iPortfolio data to the cloud and transitioning to a cloud-based database engine. “We added a Microsoft Silverlight browser plug-in front end as the primary upload mechanism. This transfers data directly into Windows Azure Blob storage, allowing us to easily store massive video files when required,” explains Auld. “We use Windows Azure compute services to convert video files, so we can accept any file format as an upload and then convert it to a standard format for playback on a wide variety of devices. We’re also moving from Oracle to a Microsoft SQL Azure database, and, eventually, the whole application will be moved into Windows Azure.”
This modular approach helped to overcome some institutional trepidation about the iPortfolio migration. “People hear ‘cloud computing,’ and it can sound scary, because they may worry about giving up control of computing resources to a third party,” explains Wilkinson. “We began the transition by running the old and new systems in parallel, and beginning in June 2010, we slowly moved students over to the new system. It was completely transparent to users, and the success of this migration is showing people how valuable a cloud model can be.”
||The Windows Azure service offering fits our application development processes better than other cloud providers. It really was an easy choice for us.
Director of Business Systems, Curtin University
Moving from a locally managed SAN to cloud-based storage has also streamlined access for students at remote campuses. “Previously, all data traffic went through the Perth data center,” says Wilkinson. “This used up significant bandwidth, and slowed performance for remote users. Now those same users can connect directly to the cloud from anywhere.”Benefits
By moving the storage and database behind iPortfolio from local systems to a cloud-based platform, Curtin University has made its ongoing IT costs and storage requirements more manageable and predictable. The university has also increased the agility of IT project development, and using the robust functionality of Windows Azure will enhance learning resources for students and staff.
Reduced Data Storage Costs and Simplified IT Planning
With cloud-based storage, Curtin has eliminated the need for an expensive and difficult-to-scale SAN. “Previously, if we hit storage barriers, we had to take time to work with the infrastructure team to provision new SAN hardware,” says Wilkinson. “The per-gigabyte cost of SAN storage can be extremely high, but we now have easily scalable, highly reliable storage with triple backup protection at a fraction of the previous cost. And because we can use and pay for Windows Azure storage on demand, as we need it, it’s easy to meet our ever-increasing capacity needs and predict what our ongoing costs will be.”
By moving to hosted storage and computing resources, Curtin has also reduced ongoing infrastructure support costs. “We have eliminated the need to worry about things like hardware maintenance, disaster recovery, and data backups because it’s all done for us,” says Wilkinson. “That not only saves us money, but also allows us to move our IT administrators onto projects that really add value for students and staff.”Enhanced Learning Resources
Although Curtin didn’t change iPortfolio features during the migration, it has still improved the resource for staff and students. Remote campuses now have more direct access, and developers are already planning enhancements.
“The technologies that work with Windows Azure will enable us to add new features like video and audio blogging and audio feedback for portfolio items,” says Wilkinson. “We are definitely able to offer a richer and more reliable media experience. We’re planning a Windows Mobile phone application so that students can capture their learning anywhere, as it happens, on their mobile phone. It’s Windows Azure that is making these things possible.”More Agile Development
IT staff recognize that the move to Windows Azure has helped to simplify application development. “Developing applications for Windows Azure is easier, so we can be a lot more agile in delivering services,” explains Wilkinson. “We’re already seeing those benefits in how we handle large files and media, which are an important part of iPortfolio.”
The move to Windows Azure is going to continue and expand. “We plan to develop a procurement portal with Windows Azure, and during the coming year, we’ll move all new development projects with suitable scalability requirements to the new platform,” says Wilkinson. “If we had Windows Azure last year, we would have built the entire application with it.”Microsoft Education
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