When universities outside of Georgia discover how the state is using the private cloud to leverage learning capabilities for students and faculty, it’s only a matter of time before other higher education systems follow suit. The path to move the University System of Georgia’s disjointed IT services to the cloud model originally started out of necessity. “About fifteen years ago, we figured out that this idea of engaging with lots and lots of vendors to run bandwidth was awkward and cost prohibitive,” says CIO and vice chancellor Curt Carver. As a solution, Carver says the University System bought about 2,800 miles of dark fiber across the state to create a bandwidth service that was “effectively unlimited for each campus.”
When Carver joined the department in 2009, the University System was already moving toward the full private-cloud format with increased bandwidth capabilities, storage, data centers, and backup as offered services. The system took off quickly, so Carver started layering Software as a Service (SaaS) on top of that as well. Now, the private cloud caters to 314,000 students across the thirty-one schools in the system; further, 250,000 unique users access the cloud on a daily basis, Carver says, generating more than 50 million hits a day as students access files, participate in discussion boards, and participate in other activities like submitting assignments.
Miles of fiber-optic cable that makes up the private cloud used by the University System of Georgia, providing rapid access to the centralized service
Terabytes of course material generated by faculty now stored in the cloud. More than 120,000 courses were available to students last fall, with new ones coming on board this spring
Students that will have access to the private cloud when the state’s K–12 institutions come online
One of the most prominent benefits of this technology is the ability for the universities to work at large economies of scale while driving down costs. Instead of negotiating independent contracts with various networks to cater to each of the thirty-one institutions’ technological infrastructures individually, the single state package centralizes those costs, saving time, staffing, and substantial funding. Taxpayer dollars can now be allocated to higher priority tasks within the educational system.
Secondly, and arguably more importantly, thanks to private control and internal engineering, the university-wide cloud system always works. Fears of outages or times where access is not possible have been assuaged. The academic system can now focus entirely on enabling student success as opposed to wrangling with inefficient technologies. Carver says this is one way to “truly transform higher education,” as it’s “creating a platform for innovation by others.”
This concept is especially significant for faculty. Since the streamlined learning management system lives on the cloud, staff can spend more time figuring out ways to elevate their curricula and innovate where that opportunity didn’t exist to the same extent before. To date, more than forty-three terabytes of course material, with 120,000 courses added in fall 2014 alone (and more to be added in upcoming semesters), have been stored as learning management systems and software were brought on board.
For Carver, articulating the value of the system to both participants and outsiders is a relatively easy task when he couches the infrastructure in human terms. “This is not just an IT system,” he says. “It’s about the people and how they use it.” As a result, the general reaction has thus far been very positive. “[Students] have really appreciated the new functionality, the fact that it’s mobile-enabled, the ability to get in and do their work and see all their courses in one place.”
Yet it’s the reaction from institutions outside of the educational system that best illustrates the cloud’s success. In 2013, Nathan Deal, the governor of Georgia, recognized the potential of the cloud and is now investing in moving all K–12 schools to the system, and 1.6 million students across 6,000 schools will be online by summer 2015. Other state agencies, nonprofits, and even a federal agency have also since reached out to Carver to inquire about joining.
“This idea that started fifteen years ago is the mustard seed that’s beginning to blossom into this very large and transformational agent,” Carver says. “The economies of scale and the performance—the system always works—has built trust in this technology that has lead to options for the greater benefit of the citizens of the state of Georgia.”
Photo by Joe Silva