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University of Wolverhampton goes virtual for storage

Universities in the United Kingdom face a double-edged competitive threat which most businesses would struggle to combat.

By John Oates

They face growing competition for both undergraduates and postgraduates, not to mention teaching staff, from institutions across the world. But their ability to invest is restricted by a government set ceiling on the fees they can charge students.

Universities must also deal with ever-more demanding students who expect to get the very best facilities, technical support and distance learning in exchange for their fees. Students are paying customers now and expect service levels to match.

Student satisfaction surveys for every single course are measured yearly and play a big role in creating curriculums and changing teaching practises.

Both students and staff expect first class support from the IT department. This doesn’t just mean good Wi-Fi in the library. Students need email, which many universities now maintain for ever. They need the ability to access university systems safely and securely from anywhere.

Almost every interaction between students and teaching staff is now done through an online portal or bespoke application. Assignments are put online along with links to related research material for the students to access.

Essays and other work are usually submitted via the same application. Marks and feedback are again provided to students through this interface.

So a university’s software can provide an opportunity for interaction which is almost as important as face-to-face teaching and guidance and certainly a more frequent interaction for the typical student.

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So technology departments in universities have become far more central to the organisation’s strategy and how it keeps its students and staff happy.

The IT department must also deal with wild changes in demand for different parts of the system – with big peaks at the start of the academic year and in the run up to exams followed by a shift to more research use of systems during the summer.

Beyond student services a university IT department must also satisfy the admin and research demands of its other users – the staff and academics.

But all this must be achieved with extremely tight control on budgets which requires any technology investment to be fully utilised in order to earn its keep.

The University of Wolverhampton moved from a very traditional IT infrastructure with separated storage, computing and networking functions to a hyper-converged system from HPE. The deal included HPE Servers and StoreVirtual VSA. The old system kept throwing up barriers to growth which meant IT had to request more funding. The new systems allows much better utilisation of a whole pool of resources.

The commodity-based infrastructure means new services can be deployed in hours rather than days allowing much more effective response to changing demands.

The £1.3m deal was implemented by Logicalis as part of a £250m investment in the University wider infrastructure.

Dean Harris, Assistant Director ICT Infrastructure, said in a statement when the deal was signed: “Members of our University community are voracious consumers of digital content, and consequently we have to evolve our culture and processes to remain competitive. Creating more opportunities to learn via interesting, relevant tools can help broaden and challenge the learning of students, and this is where we, the Directorate of Academic Support, can have the greatest impact on our students’ future.

“Logicalis’ platform gives us the opportunity to behave like an internal service provider, to build a portfolio of services tailored to the diverse needs of the University community, quickly and without adding operational complexity on the IT team.”

The infrastructure is designed to be fully scalable so the University will be able to adapt to future needs with minimum disruption.

Logicalis describes the five layer stack as ‘IT by wire’. This is made up of HPE’s hyper-converged infrastructure, virtualisation products, automated management and service monitoring using HPE OneView and HPE Helion. Finally the system uses cloud integration and instrumentation by using HPE’s Virtual Performance Viewer.

There’s a short video outlining the project here:

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