Migrating an entire university to the cloud, during a pandemic: lessons learned

Written by Jennifer Schaeffer
VP of Information Technology and Chief Information Officer, Athabasca University (AU)


It’s said that change is the only constant in life, and that holds true in the world of IT. This year has brought about lots of change for society—the way we socialize, the way we work, the way we learn, the way we teach. The way we stockpile unnecessary amounts of toilet paper. I could keep going. 

For some, the global pandemic has put projects on hold as we wait to see what the fallout is, but for others, like our organization, we embarked on one of the biggest transformation projects to date—while mainly working from home.

Athabasca University (AU) supports more than 43,000 students in 87 countries and is Canada’s only public digital post-secondary institution. We already had a massive technical infrastructure to support all that learning, but what we didn’t have was resiliency.  Some of our data centres were located in northern Alberta and had come dangerously close to being in the direct path of wildfires. Just this summer, we completed the migration of our entire operational IT infrastructure to our AU Cloud on Amazon Web Service (AWS). All applications, including our learning management system (LMS) and enterprise resource planning (ERP) system (admissions, registration, billing, academic records, payroll, etc.) were moved, and we are now the first university in Canada to be fully in the cloud. 

We didn’t just decide to move on a whim. We planned before we started our migration, and our preparation even enabled us to complete the move a few days ahead of schedule.



We first developed the RISE plan—a five-year IT strategy—in 2018. The premise was that we were going to focus on Cloud and Code, versus Brick and Mortar. RISE is an acronym that defines how we will show up, support each other, and realize our university-wide plan that is beyond IT (Responsive, Innovative Sustainable, and Engaging).

IT knew it was going to focus on going all-in to the cloud, so we started by training 400 of our IT and operational staff to understand the new normal of running university administration and operations in the cloud, and getting people excited about running IT systems without a physical server to feel and touch. Having the plan, communicating it, and training, helped us be able to migrate our systems in under six months. Right now, we estimate we will save $16 million over the next five years by running in the cloud.


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Find your data

Our prep work uncovered some things on servers and other pieces of storage that were not in IT that we didn’t even know were there, like important administration information and research workloads. Moving to the cloud has now given us greater visibility into our different data sets around our university, and has put it all in a place that makes the creation of things like a data lake possible. If your data is spread around disparate systems, you’re not going to be able to use your data at scale to support your students in innovative ways.

At AU, we’ve brought our data together so now that it’s all in the cloud, we can get to work on using machine learning and artificial intelligence to clean our data and help us uncover insights. When your systems share info, you can see that a student may be experiencing issues with their learning journey and you can intervene to help and give that student a better experience. We can’t do that in a coordinated way today, but the goal is to now build the connective tissue for our data to deliver on the “engaging” piece of the RISE plan.


Support your team

While change is constant, change is also hard. I hear from my fellow CIOs that turning the tide to get teams to change process and adopt new technology is as much of a technological knowledge gap as it is an emotional one. But the payoff is vast. For our team, they now have experience working with the latest technology and are free to innovate, versus being bogged down by maintenance and troubleshooting in a traditional on-premise infrastructure environment. We have learners in countries around the world, studying at all times of the day and night. We need disaster recovery in real-time. Before moving to the cloud, we could have up to 70% of our IT resources working to recover mission-critical applications if there was a failure. Now, downtime in the AU cloud only happens when we plan it. This move has created a self-healing infrastructure allowing us to now ensure better stability in the components and applications that reside in or connect to our AU cloud. 


Build your foundation

There’s no innovation at scale without good plumbing. Our work isn’t done, but the foundation for our house is in place, so now it gets really fun to build and design new features for our students and staff.

We knew we needed to move our infrastructure quickly, so we trained up, chose one key system to move initially, continued to train more and then analyzed all of the legacy infrastructures and migrated and adapted them to a new enterprise architecture in our cloud. It was the right move for our needs, and now we need to refactor some things and continue to change the way we operate, evolving from being in the cloud to being of the cloud.

The benefits are already being felt. With AWS CloudFront (a content delivery network), the material that learners need—graphics and videos get stored and replicated all over the network globally. This allows us to enrich our learner experience, and deliver their lessons quickly and reliably if they are in Europe, Canada, or anywhere else. Already, we’ve had a better user experience because of the cloud, and we’re just getting started. Our new infrastructure also gives us the elasticity we need. With the COVID-19 pandemic, we have had double-digit growth in the number of students who are looking to complete their post-secondary education online. We now have the ability to extend our capacity without giving it a second thought.

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