Université Laval becomes an IT services broker to offer a community cloud

The concept of an IT department charging lines of business for the services they consume has been around a while, but it’s a shift in thinking. The Université Laval has made the transition, and is not only taking that approach with faculty, but is providing cloud services to other organizations in the community.

The Quebec post-secondary institution is one of three universities leveraging VMware NSX so it can be an IT services broker and offer a “community cloud.” The University of New Mexico and the University of New Hampshire have done the same.

In a telephone interview with IT World Canada, Guillaume Moutier, director of U-Laval’s IT Architecture Office, said the university has implemented a central IT model that is self-sufficient. The journey began about five years ago when U-Laval began building a new data centre dedicated to virtualization and setting up service offerings for all departments and faculty at the university. “We wanted to effectively change how IT was delivered,” he said. “We wanted to migrate to a way of operating as a totally separate business.”

This approach included developing service level agreements (SLAs) and pricing models to provide Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) to university stakeholders. For example, said Moutier, faculty needing a new virtual machine are charged directly for that service out of their budget. This allows U-Laval’s IT Architecture Office to be independent, rather than having to go to the university’s finance department every year to fund new infrastructure, he said.

U-Laval’s IT services broker model actually led to a 90 per cent reduction in new VM demands, said Moutier, and it was seeing requests from outside organizations wondering if they could host applications and data at the university. Initially, the answer was a flat out “no,” he said, but a new provincial law introduced in early 2014 to encourage the sharing of resources and expertise among public sector organizations changed that.

U-Laval is now using the four data centres it has to support its 50,000 students, 10,000 staff members and researchers to provide a community cloud for municipalities, public sector entities, school boards, and government agencies in Quebec. Starting with a pilot project with the City of Quebec, U-Laval has taken on more clients such as the Ministry of Tourism, which has nearly 80 VMs in operation. VMware’s NSX enables U-Laval to deliver completely isolated environments for customers on the same infrastructure. “We have the data centres,” Moutier said. “We have the expertise for running a service provider business.”

He said VMware’s NSX was chosen to support the community cloud because it the vendor was already the university’s standard platform for virtualization, and it allows U-Laval to support multi-tenancy for all of its customers and minimizes risk from a network security perspective. In addition, said Moutier, customers can easily provision their own services with almost no intervention from U-Laval staff, whereas four or five years ago, they would have had to work on a switch and set up a VLAN.

Internally, the Laval’s IT Architecture Office still has to work with legacy infrastructure throughout the university, but Moutier said what’s important is that it was able to transform to become service provider. Critical to that was merging various teams, including storage and networking, under one umbrella. “We are fortunate to have done this reorganization,” he said. “Otherwise it just wouldn’t have worked.”

Shawn Rosemarin, chief of staff, Americas Systems Engineering for VMware and the company’s field CTO for Canada, said the community cloud market is just emerging, and has been somewhat nascent as everyone has been focused on the public cloud and the commodity services they can buy. The community cloud model allows for the consumption of services that can be customized based on geography and industry, he said.

The demand for universities to be more efficient and do more with less has created a perfect storm to make the cloud community offering a logical course of action for a university such as U-Laval that has already shifted to become an IT services broker to its own faculty and departments, added Rosemarin.

About 20 years ago, when the Canada Foundation for Innovation was first launched, researchers would typically acquire funding for a proprietary server to go under their desk, which was used for a month and then would gather dust. He said the updated legislation and community cloud approach means government, the community and taxpayers get a better return on investment and more research for the same money.

Rosemarin said these community clouds also eliminate tedious competition processes because ultimately these organizations are able to support themselves. “Because they are funded by government, they become best resting place for these applications to run.”

He said the biggest challenge for universities wanting to shift to an IT services broker model is not technology, but whether everyone involved can agree on a shared services model. “Any shared services model requires commitment and drive at the highest level.”

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Gary Hilson
Gary Hilson
Gary Hilson is a Toronto-based freelance writer who has written thousands of words for print and pixel in publications across North America. His areas of interest and expertise include software, enterprise and networking technology, memory systems, green energy, sustainable transportation, and research and education. His articles have been published by EE Times, SolarEnergy.Net, Network Computing, InformationWeek, Computing Canada, Computer Dealer News, Toronto Business Times and the Ottawa Citizen, among others.

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