Matt Lawson- netapp Student information systems (SIS) are critical to the operability of educational institutions. Add to the importance of SIS the large number of new technologies available on an enterprise-wide scale, and university and college IT administrators have all of the tools they need to create and support a more efficient and user-friendly data infrastructure for students as well as faculty and staff in a self-service environment.

To explore these trends GovDataDownload recently interviewed Matt Lawson, Principal Architect at NetApp. In the interview Matt shares the latest trends in SIS infrastructure and what administrators are looking for as more and more institutions recognize the value of virtualization and cloud based systems.

GovDataDownload (GDD): How critical to university and college operations are Student Information Systems (SIS)? What are some of the challenges that higher education institutions are facing?

Matt Lawson (ML): First of all, SIS is one of the most important systems that an institution of higher education can run. They drive revenue- they essentially drive the core elements that make-up the business of higher education. And so, if you think about it, it’s their SIS that the college will use to collect tuition and register the students.

Of utmost importance are the availability, reliability and serviceability of these systems. University administrators need to make sure they’re up and running 24/7- always available with no disruption to their students. And so, being a very critical system- there’s a great deal of focus on implementing technologies that provide this level of service.

Student information systems have to perform very well. Think back 20-30 years in higher education. Punch card systems and mainframes and students standing in long lines to register for courses are no longer the acceptable norm; the student information system has to be available at a high level of performance at all times.
With technologies like flash, administrators can accelerate, improve and enhance the performance of these enterprise systems. I also see an emerging trend in the way analytics are being used.

For example, if you look at all of the data that’s stored behind these enterprise systems from registrations to recruitment, we have to consider how can we use analytics to drive recruitment, to predict which courses and programs are going to be in demand the next semester, to proactively improve student success and to present a better experience for students. This is an emerging area where administrators are using analytics within student information systems to help make specific determinations.

Another dominant conversation is the use of cloud computing and how cloud can help with the economics of these systems.

But, with cloud adoption, there’s still concern about data sovereignty, security and protection. The information in student information systems is protected by FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act). So, even though colleges and universities are looking into cloud to elevate their business, they are still concerned about how to protect their data while still taking advantage of newer technologies.

GDD: As institutions make necessary upgrades, how are they approaching virtualization and the challenges of data conversion?

ML: Virtualization is another key technology in any IT infrastructure, and has particular benefits at server-level virtualization and storage-level virtualization. The notion behind virtualization is the uncoupling of what is running from where it is running. So, if you can virtualize your server environment to your storage environment, it makes your data and running service applications that much more portable. And, it’s much easier to move workloads around seamlessly. Now, that’s not necessarily speaking from the application layer but from a purely infrastructure layer.

Virtualization is the key technology enabling the ease of movement of data and services from one physical location to another. As we talk about the ability to move data easily, colleges and universities are looking at cloud-based solutions. There are some very important questions that arise about protecting and securing data in the cloud, and about data portability over the long term. While a cloud solution or vendor might be the right choice for a college now. Three or four years down the road, if they want to move to a different cloud solution or bring it back on premises what happens? As a result, institutions need to talk with providers about how they handle transition and data conversion issues.

GDD: You’ve mentioned security; in managing student data, how big of a concern is security? And, how do you propose educational institutions combat challenges with cyber security?

ML: Security, obviously, is a concern of any enterprise, but particularly so for educational institutions. Security needs to be layered from the beginning of any implementation within any new process in delivering the services. Consequently, I’m a firm believer in a multi-faceted approach, or an all of the above strategy with security.

There’s not a single answer that will completely protect you. You really need to be looking at adding layers of security at every layer of the application. The infrastructure, such as storage, servers, and transport layers even all the way up to the application layer, need their own layer of security. Consider looking at technologies like application level firewalls, and other similar technologies that can add that multi-layer security approach.

GDD: You’ve done a great deal of work within community college systems, specifically in the Virginia system, where you took the lead on the design and build of a custom student portal in 2007. How does implementing such a portal impact and benefit the college?

ML: One of the larger benefits of the student facing portal is the ability to give students a self-service interface for some of their core IT needs from account provisions to resetting passwords to accessing applications.

One of the core benefits was the ability to offer self-service to students but also increasing efficiency and improving student experience. This self-service environment makes it so that students don’t have to call in and talk to a person to access and maintain their accounts.

The college benefits from these types of portals as well. One of the biggest benefits for the college is access to a central data location for systems and services. The central office managed all of the business continuity and disaster recovery elements for these applications. They did not have to implement disaster recovery and the continuity of these systems. So, the central office, with NetApp technology like SnapMirror, was able to maintain very low recovery point objectives (RPO) and recovery time objectives (RTO) and had a complete disaster recovery solution for enterprise applications used by hundreds of thousands of students every year.

GDD: Where do you think Student Information systems should trend in the future?

ML: Many of the student information systems today are based on big Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) applications. And, one thing we know about ERP applications is that they’re very monolithic and often times are slow to embrace new technology and enhancements in user design or user interface.

To further enhance and improve student self-service, the SIS will continue to improve their user interface and take advantage of technologies like HTML5, and then that will drive opportunity for cloud providers to offer cloud based SIS.

A great deal of ERP vendors are moving in that direction and are trying to establish a self-serve environment. Colleges and universities want to be about the business of teaching and learning. They don’t necessarily derive value from running large administrative computing systems. And so, technologies or innovations that allow them to drive more teaching and learning- those are going to be a win-win.

Cloud service providers that can help universities and colleges do that by implementing or providing cloud based applications and can also provide a nice, clean user interface that meets business requirements are those who will be in the front seat. I predict that many colleges and universities will go in that direction as the advantages of cloud based SIS as well as other current advancements become more evident.

To learn more about advancements in Student Information Systems, click here.