By Sramana Mitra and guest author Shaloo Shalini
SM: What does a state portal do?
RB: The state portal does basically what our national portal does, and what our product does. It offers high schools and colleges within the state a way to communicate. It also provides tools for students and parents to help students make the transition from high school to college and beyond.
SM: Ok. Let’s dive into your IT environment. What is the scope of the IT infrastructure you manage? In other words, what are the functions, what is the infrastructure, and so on?
RB: Great, I love talking about this stuff. I can tell you when I came into the organization approximately two years ago, we were using many different technologies. On the database side, we were basically made up of Oracle services and databases. We were running on the Linux environment. We had SQL server databases, all of which ran on our own hardware and software setup. We had MySQL databases as well. Most of our hardware on the production system was hosted at our partner site NaviSite, which is a public company. When I came into the organization, we needed a few things. One was to simplify our technologies that were just the database technology. We had four or five application technologies, so we decided to look at .NET and use that exclusively in our environment. At that time, we were working with VMWare virtualization. We had been using it for two years prior. At that time, I had a relationship with NaviSite and with also with Cisco. This was when they were starting to unveil the new Cisco Unified Computing System (UCS) platform. We were one of the first beta testers on that platform. The UI was very customized from Navisite. I would say, at that time, two years ago, it had a bleeding edge and I was vey impressed with the performance of that product. In the summer of 2010, we migrated 86 of our 120 physical servers to the private UCS – the Cisco cloud – and we are migrating more. But I must say that a significant amount of our overall architecture is currently on Cisco’s UCS platform.
SM: What is your philosophy on cloud computing? What is the organizing principle for how you think about cloud computing?
RB: When I came into the organization, we had never developed and built a cloud platform. Well, actually I should say state portal. When the challenge was put in front of me, I thought it was going to be hard to do based on physical servers if we needed to roll out multiple portals. We were looking at rolling out 15 state portals in 2011. Seeing that as a challenge, I knew we were going to need a technology that could help us get the infrastructure in a place, where we could add our application quickly and easily and get moving as soon as possible. For our first state deployment, it took us more than six or seven months just to set up the physical hardware. The first state deployment was based on physical instance before we moved to the cloud. It took us about seven months to set up the blades, the SANs [storage area networks], and all the firewalls and load balancers and to test them. Based on that experience, we knew early on that it wouldn’t be possible using our physical model. In order to be able to roll it out faster, we knew we would have to use cloud technology. The other part I would say is definitely the cost. It is probably saving us at least 30%, probably closer to 35%, especially when you think about software and hardware costs, [where] you might be paying for utility pricing. It is definitely the way of the future for any company like ours and even for other industries.
SM: This is interesting. I am glad you went to cost savings right away. Can you tell me more about the state portals you are rolling out? You have already rolled out three, and you plan to roll out another 11. These are fairly large deployments, right?
RB: Yes, these are large deployments.
SM: If you don’t mind, could you talk about the scale of a typical state deployment? I suppose your pricing is predicated upon the fact that you are using cloud architecture, is that correct?
RB: That is correct! To answer your question, I would say that because we are using cloud architecture, we are able to be at a price point that these states can afford, which is really important. Our national platform is free to students. So, we have to have the fastest, most efficient solution, and we have to scale our platform as needed. But at the same time, we need to be as cost effective and reliable as possible.
SM: How may users use the state portal that is being deployed in Massachusetts?
RB: This state platform is based on physical infrastructure. It was our first deployment, but it has the capability to support several hundred thousands of students and all of the high schools, colleges, and universities in Massachusetts.