The University of Phoenix and Expedient: Making the Transformation from a Legacy Datacenter to Software-Defined Excellence

Jul 13, 2022
Cloud Management
Credit: istock

Founded in 1976 to help working adults for whom traditional higher education programs were not practical, the University of Phoenix offers accredited online courses through 75 degree programs, including ones for business and information technology, counseling, education, and healthcare.

Jamie Smith, the university’s CIO, still remembers his first tour of the university’s leased datacenter. The result of years of consolidation, the sprawling facility was the home to numerous networks, different virtualization platforms and hypervisor levels, and a multitude of virtual machines, servers, and legacy software.

“One of the techs said some of the core systems hadn’t been rebooted in more than seven years,” says Jamie. “I was amazed. In some ways, it was a testament to the resilience of the infrastructure, but it indicated that systems weren’t being maintained. The team had also accumulated a lot of technical debt over the years as they implemented workarounds out of necessity that later became unwieldy.”

The datacenter’s very operation was difficult and expensive. Electricity cost more than $500,000 per year, and many of the legacy systems were problematic. For years, the IT team worked to get by, but it was getting tough just to keep things running.

Jamie knew that his goal was to simplify the IT environment, reduce technical debt and lower costs. Compounding the challenge, everything needed to change while in operation without impacting students.

“Our team questioned if we could pull it off. I knew we could do much better, but we needed a partner, not a vendor, to make that happen,” says Jamie. “I worked with Expedient at my previous job, so I reached out to Bryan to see how they might be able to help us on what I knew would be a significant journey.”

Getting the data center under control

“Our initial conversation was really about taking over the control of the datacenter and looking at how we could modernize it,” says Bryan Smith, senior vice president and chief strategy officer at Expedient. “That grew to charting a path forward, determining what kinds of options existed and going from a lift-and-shift approach to one of lift-and-optimize.”

Based in Pittsburgh and with data centers throughout the United States, Expedient is a VMware Cloud Verified partner that serves numerous industries and makes the cloud different, smarter, safer, and simplified for many of the most successful organizations. It offers a full array of multi-cloud services based on VMware technology as well as disaster recovery, security, compliance, and colocation solutions.

“We had to convince the team that we could virtualize most workloads, so I basically said to Bryan, how about you get your team on a plane and come out,” recalls Jamie. “They showed up that Monday and we moved the first workload a few days later. We chose the hardest, nastiest one to prove that we could do it.”

That early success created a powerful boost in confidence. That, along with other factors, prompted the team to reconsider what was possible.

“Our data center landlord was skeptical of change, but we found a colocation facility that was a driver and a five iron away,” he adds. “It offered sub-second latency and great connectivity. We made the decision to take things much further: we would virtualize as much as possible and migrate all of our operations into a software-defined datacenter and the VMware-powered Experient Cloud. And we would eliminate a lot of technical debt and operational costs while we were at it.”

Although software-defined networking streamlined the work, including the interplay between ACI and NSX, and low latency negated the need for complicated move groups, it was still a monumental undertaking while simultaneously supporting classes for hundreds of thousands of students. The team also had to address the very old versions of Linux and Oracle still in use.

“With Expedient and VMware, we were able to get very creative about how to modernize and move our workloads,” says Jamie. “The flexibility of the VMware platform and Expedient’s experience with it opened up many possibilities. Expedient also brought a lot of problem-solving experience to the table that let us successfully modernize systems. It energized the entire team.”

A migration that led to optimization

The team not only closed the original data center and completed the University of Phoenix’s migration to the cloud in months; it exceeded Jamie’s goals and the most optimistic metrics for success. The colocation facility, originally slated to house 100 racks, today includes seven. Infrastructure savings alone amounted to $26 million – five times greater than goal – and the team reclaimed an estimated 234,000 hours of labor by eliminating technical debt.

Jamie stresses that those are but some of the benefits.

“The pandemic created more than 3,000 competitors overnight because everyone had to provide education online,” he says. “It showed that online education works, but that it’s not easy. The platform we now have in place empowers us to focus on delivering the game-changing experiences our students expect in their education and in their daily lives.”

In addition, the IT team that spent most of its time keeping the data center operational now focuses on these student experiences, additional future-proofing, and reinvestment. Staff members are also being trained in DevOps and development.

“Jamie and his team don’t have to find the next engineer,” says Bryan. “They are training them themselves.”

Most importantly, all of the savings and efficiencies gained ultimately benefit students.

“The less we focus on boxes and wires, the more we can focus on making a difference in their education. People are rethinking the lives and careers they want to pursue. We want to help them get to where they want to go.”

As a next step, the team at the university continues to find new opportunities for optimization and is deploying VMware vCloud Director Availability. Learn more about Expedient and its partnership with VMware here. More details on the University of Phoenix and its successful cloud migration are also available at:

Recommendations and Results at a Glance:

Jamie recommends that CIOs find a true partner and treat them as such when doing any large-scale project.

“The word partnership is overused and abused, but it’s absolutely crucial. You need a partner that is in with you to find and create a solution, not one that immediately goes to the contract when something comes up. Both parties need to be saying ‘let’s figure it out’ and treat each other fairly,” he says.

The migration of the University of Phoenix’s data center to the cloud resulted in significant savings and operational gains:

  • Reclaimed 234,000 IT hours over three years by eliminating technical data early
  • Reduced complexity by centralizing management with a modern software-defined platform
  • Accelerated the transformation to a cloud operating model in months not years
  • Freed the IT team to develop new skills and focus on high-value activities apart from operating the original data center