Flinders University in big cloud push

Prepares to shift finance and student admin systems to SaaS offerings

Flinders University is aiming to have 80 to 90 per cent of its key applications running in the cloud, up from around 25 to 30 per cent today, as part of an ambitious digital strategy.

“We have some of our core systems running in the cloud already and we want to expand on that,” Kelvin McCarthy, the university’s acting associate director, Information and Digital Services (IDS), told Computerworld.

Currently the South Australian university relies on Microsoft’s Office 365 and Dynamics CRM, and Appian’s BPM software as a service (SaaS) offering. (Flinders’ learning management system is also hosted off-site and delivered under a managed service agreement.)

The digital strategy is aligned to the university’s overall strategic plan — Making a Difference: The 2025 Agenda. The plan outlines Flinders’ ambition of being “internationally recognised as a world leader in research, an innovator in contemporary education, and the source of Australia’s most enterprising graduates”.

Technology is a key enabler of the strategic plan, according to McCarthy. Flinders last month announced it had hired its first chief information officer as part of its technology transformation program.

Historically, IT at Flinders has had a strong focus on running infrastructure including data centres, the university’s network and telephony. Now the emphasis has shifted from running the business to helping Flinders deliver on strategic goals around teaching, learning and research, McCarthy said.

The digital strategy envisages a significant increase in the use of cloud services, particularly SaaS, he said.

“We historically have come from a view that we’d rather buy than build, but at the same time recognised there are specific circumstances where bespoke software might give us a strategic advantage or competitive advantage,” McCarthy said.

“We don’t want to lift up all our infrastructure at our on-prem data centre and move that to AWS or Azure; we’d rather rethink how we offer those services in a SaaS-based world,” McCarthy said.

The penchant for SaaS applications reflects university’s key 18-25 demographic, which expects consumer-style apps that are easy to use and mobile-enabled.

Flinders is currently engaged in the advanced stages of discussions with TechnologyOne to move its financial and student management systems to the vendor’s cloud-based offerings.

McCarthy said that the university’s IDS team is already preparing for the likelihood that it will migrate from the aging on-prem student management system to a SaaS-based application.

The university has already begun working with Dell Boomi’s integration platform as a service (iPaaS) offering, McCarthy said.

The university went to market in early 2016 seeking an integration platform before settling on Boomi. McCarthy said the university looked for three key features: Support for ESB-style integration, API capabilities, and master data management (MDM) support

So far IDS has been using the platform to build some of the university’s first APIs, but the shift to a new student management system will be the first major integration project using the platform.

The university plans to leverage Boomi’s MDM Cloud — which launched in Australia in July —  in order to maintain data across SaaS applications.

“As part of the digital strategy we needed to have a massive uplift to our integration capability,” McCarthy said. Otherwise Flinders ran the risk of “ending up with a whole heap of islands.”

“Our vision on the MDM side is that we’ll end up with multiple SaaS based applications and each one of those, say, has a student record in it — it has my name, my details, my phone number — how do I make sure all of them are kept in sync?” McCarthy said.

“The SaaS-based applications dictate how we approach that; we don’t have control, we can’t just go and force them to do things,” he said.

Boomi’s MDM support means it can be used to do the heavy lifting of keeping data in sync across disparate SaaS platforms, he said.

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