by Byron Connolly

Where ‘silicon meets sandstone’: Sydney Uni’s transformation two years on

Feb 13, 2018
Education Industry

It’s been just over two years since Mike Day landed at Sydney University from the UK to undertake the CIO role. Since then, Day and his team have begun decommissioning old systems and introducing innovations that are creating an environment at the university that is more collaborative than ever.

Sydney University has been progressively merging 16 faculties into six. The faculties use more than 100 core enterprise systems and 700 small, localised systems which are all competing to create one version of the truth, Day told CIO Australia.

Under Day’s ‘silicon meets sandstone’ tech strategy, the technology team have been decommissioning systems that aren’t adding value with about 350 marked for retirement in the next few months.

“Some of them are small ‘spreadsheet-type’ [apps] or FileMaker databases – some are point solutions that have previously served the needs of an individual, function, school or facility,” Day said.

“We’ve had a very fragmented [technology] landscape, which reflected one of the problems that the strategic plan is solving. In a university with lots of large faculties all fulfilling their own mission, you end up with a very messy [application] landscape. We’ve been looking at how we administer the university more end to end – leaving out processes and thinking about what our target state architecture should be,” he said.

Reducing the number of faculties inside Sydney University is helping the institution move from being very focused on individual ‘subjects’ to taking a more multi-disciplinary approach to teaching and research. Solving problems related to Alzheimer’s disease or obesity or developing the next-generation of nanoscience-based computer chip, for example, requires a multi-disciplinary approach, Day said.

“Traditionally, we might have thought about a medical problem being solved by medics when actually engineers have got a strong contribution to make when, for example, 3D-printing children’s bones. The arts faculty may also have a contribution to make around how things can be done in a much more ‘design-led’ way. So breaking down those traditional barriers between disciplines means that you have a contribution that is greater than the sum of its parts,” he said.

Day recently led the deployment of Dropbox at the university across its six faculties and three schools. Half of the university’s staff members are using the cloud storage and collaboration platform with the rollout to students to commence this month for the new semester. Around 8,500 students and staff at the university are also currently using the Microsoft Yammer enterprise social networking tool.

The university is equipping academics and students with a choice of tools which are most appropriate for their individual circumstance.

“Different disciplines use technology in different ways – that’s why bringing them together helps because they can cross-fertilise those ideas. For example, architects use virtual and augmented reality in a very different way that medics use it. That’s what makes this job endlessly fascinating because it’s not just about the corporate network important as that is.”

Innovation through collaboration

Last year, Western Sydney University’s chief information and digital officer, Kerry Holling, said the use of mixed reality (AR and VR) technology is having profound implications on the tertiary education sector. He said these technologies provide a compelling learning experience for students and prepare them for the workplace.

Day agrees and added that collaboration between universities in this area is vital to success. He said that the use of AR and VR in both research and education has to be practitioner-led so these technologies are not as a solution for problems that haven’t been identified.

“Other universities have done great work in this area and we would expect some of the things that we do to be stolen which is great, particularly in our sector which is highly collaborative,” he said.

Day’s tech team is working with surgeons from the university’s medical schools to identify how they can use augmented reality, for example, to locate cysts or cancers that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to see.

“They [surgeons] are at the forefront of thinking in these areas and often we are supporting them in those areas. It’s our [the tech group’s] job to constantly reinvent the IT infrastructure so it can cope.”

As an example, Day said an electron microscope pumps out around 200GB of data per second.

“Normal networks just can’t cope with that – it’s all too easy to get into a fight about how to make the normal network cope with that but the answer isn’t to make it cope, it’s to co-design a network that can,” he said.

Future plans

“You can experiment with technology but will go nowhere if you haven’t got the ability to scale it quickly, so we are looking at a model that [ensures] when our experiments turn out the way we expect them to, then we can scale the technology very quickly,” said Day.

The university is experimenting with WiFi analytics to examine ‘utilisation rates’ of infrastructure across its campuses.

“Every dollar we spend in the university on ‘stuff’ is a dollar that we are not spending directly on solving the world’s big problems for the next generation of kids.

“We are also doing a lot of work on things that protect the university and its interests in areas such as cyber security. We are thinking again about how we identify people and understand their entitlements – that’s incredibly important for us strategically because we work with a broad constituency, many of whom don’t work for the university. These people might be part of a local health district or other various partner organisations globally,” he said.

The university is also in the market for a procurement mechanism for its ‘cloud-first’ data centre transformation, said Day.

“We are doing that in a way that preserves the best of what we do now but gets us swiftly as possible to using the best that the cloud has to offer. That’s not a volume-based deal, it’s a genuine methodology for assessing what can go to the cloud now and what’ can’t,” he said.

Day said he expects that the ‘next-generation’ of the university’s systems will be mostly cloud-native with its forthcoming replacement procure-to-pay and human resources systems to be cloud-based.

“We also are implementing a new learning management system which is cloud-based, and clearly, Dropbox is cloud-native.”

Follow CIO Australia on Twitter and Like us on Facebookhellip;Twitter: @CIO_Australia,Facebook: CIO Australia, or take part in the CIO conversation onLinkedIn: CIO Australia

Follow Byron Connolly on Twitter:@ByronConnolly