As a distance learning provider, The College Network relies extensively on a sophisticated infrastructure of servers, storage, and networks to deliver education through 200 employees and 150 independent contractors, all supported by one CIO and his team of five IT professionals.
But this core group was spending too much of its valuable time tending to infrastructure needs, CIO Ryan Sallee told me. So Sallee explained the concept of private cloud to business leaders, using analogies like Netflix and drawing diagrams of how the technology worked to educate executives about the security, flexibility, cost savings, and other benefits this approach would afford the company. Approval in hand, Sallee began researching providers that could truly partner with the educational organization in its transition away from managing 50 physical servers at headquarters and another 65 in Indianapolis.
The College Network's other cloud driver: adopting a disaster recovery solution that didn't sit on a shelf until a problem occurred, said Sallee.
I've never been a huge proponent of, 'Let me build a huge infrastructure and let me put it on the shelf just in case.' What I wanted to do was, 'How do I build a business continuity plan? How do I use what I have and have redundancy in place?' I really wanted to move my IT shop, my technical people, from being so focused on day-to-day tasks within IT. If you think about IT as a cost center where you're buying everything, servicing everything, I wanted us to become a strategic division within our company and help the business move forward.
The College Network had, of course, several provider options and was already in the process of narrowing down its list when Sallee got a message from an EarthLink Business representative, Sallee recalled. Remembering the provider from the early days of personal Internet access, he returned the call and liked what he heard. Not only were the numbers right, said Sallee, but EarthLink's team worked well with the College Network's highly technical IT department:
The guys just got it. They were asking all the right questions. They really led the conversation in a lot of ways and it was like they were in our head in a lot of ways. We had a real good feel about their team and their technical capabilities. These guys just seemed to have that extra piece.
Part of that expertise is due to EarthLink's close relationship with partner VMware, said Thomas Hobika, vice president of solutions engineering at EarthLink, in an interview. The provider sits on the vendor's advisory panel, he noted. In addition, EarthLink helped the College Network's IT department manage expectations and teamed with IT to "orchestrate the pre-sales engagement" to fully learn what the educational organization wanted and needed from its private cloud solution, said Hobika.
The College Network completed its transition to the private cloud at the end of 2012. That means it's still early to measure results. But the IT department is already realizing tangible benefits, said Sallee. While downtime worries never truly disappear, IT no longer rushes around putting out storage, network downtime, or other technological fires. Instead, IT professionals now proactively work with department managers and employees to resolve their business issues with technology. Said Sallee:
You look at your work now compared to what your work was. You see your work shift. Now we have this business unit or that business unit saying, 'This is a challenge we have. We need help.' We're spending a lot more time with the business and not in the server room. That was the goal and we're starting to realize that goal. We've been live now with EarthLink since December. We're already starting to reap the benefits of that.
Today, the College Network runs about 10 servers, which it plans to consolidate further and run under EarthLink. The organization, which operates four call centers, is now considering how to operate voice in the cloud, too, as it seeks additional flexibility, speed, and cost savings from this model.
Operating with a small IT department, this growing midsize organization aced its first lesson in private cloud. No doubt, its next class -- in voice and cloud -- will go equally well.
— Alison Diana , ThinkerNet Editor, Internet Evolution