Marc Bailey wants to kill the spreadsheet.
At least, that’s what the research fellows at Macquarie University asked for when he first stepped on board as CIO in late 2009. The proliferation of Microsoft Excel documents, changed countless times and shared between any number of siloed departments at the institution, had created “islands of data” that made one of his first challenges a seemingly insurmountable one.
Nearly 18 months later, and with nine months of development under the belt, the first release of the solution — Datamart — was pushed out to university staff in April this year. The offering, built upon Web-based software offered by Melbourne outfit Yellowfin, replaced multiple business intelligence systems and, of course, the spreadsheet.
“I think a lot of people make a mistake with business intelligence of thinking they’ve got to fix the entire bottom part of the iceberg before they can surface anything to customers,” Bailey says. “We’ve got to deliver something customers can enjoy and use first, figure out what we can deliver quickly that’s relevant and then worry about some of the deep and dark recesses of the iceberg.”
That’s why Datamart is one of six major data initiatives slated for the university this year, and one of 56 projects Bailey has lined up for his team of 150. Bailey says the second year is all about leveraging the data often hidden under illusions of protection by university staff, and leveraging the infrastructure the IT team worked hard to replace in his first year at the institution.
2010 was a year of changes for the university. It completed its first steps into the medical realm with a private hospital and post-graduate school. It now also plays host to Cochlear’s Australian headquarters and has recently completed construction of a new, much-lauded library that seeks to drag the university from its drab, concrete-dripping days of its conception in the 1960s into a very much world-leading 21st century.
Thanks to those changes, data is now available for transportation at speeds of hundreds of gigabits around the university, supported by a gigabit AARNet-provided fibre backbone. Much of the networking was essentially ripped and replaced during 2010, with the wireless infrastructure too upgraded to 802.11n and made available for 16,000 simultaneous connections. The telephone system was replaced with voice over internet protocol and internal email was outsourced under the one of the first of many education deals with Google for its Gmail service. All that led to a leaner and ultimately much faster university network that Bailey hopes to further leverage this year with more data initiatives.
Bailey’s first year has been characterised by his challenge to form what is now known as the Informatics team and pursue technology goals centred around students and staff, rather than controlling the technology. The department has been split into nine groups, with Bailey heading the federation of those groups under his overarching strategy.
“I think every administration faces the challenges of its time,” he says, acknowledging difficulties with previous IT philosophies at the university. Key to this is what he has dubbed “consumer computing”.
“This is not necessarily shared by all universities, but I think it’s really incumbent on higher education to say, 'We will do standards based computing that will let you do whatever you need no matter what the devices is that's in front of you’.”
But if there’s one thing he wants to go, it’s the spreadsheet.
The Datamart offering is deployed on a similar system to the Oracle-based real application cluster used to deliver student exam results each semester, running 200 gigabytes of memory and five terabytes of disk space that provides consolidated student and performance data to staff and ultimately government. The solution is effectively platform-agnostic, and has been deployed as a HTML5-based Web app available on most standards compliant browsers and devices.
“No matter how many technical boxes the product could tick, there was really only one that mattered — could my mum use it?” Bailey says.
Since launching last month, departments have been lining up at the door to ditch their spreadsheets and get their data into the business intelligence suite. It has even gotten its sea-legs, travelling with university vice-chancellor, Steven Schwartz, as part of Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s consort to Asia to show a ‘Chinamart’ version of the software at Tsinghua University.
Marking the project as a success, Bailey’s attention has turned two other major initiatives; a remote access, virtualised computing lab for students, and an enterprise content management suite he has codenamed “Truth”. Combined with potential moves to sign up a Cloud-based remote storage locker for students, it appears Bailey is looking to change the way students and staff access their data.
That is unlikely to be held back too, with Bailey citing a lack of “sacred cows”. Bailey says he isn’t fussed about the technology — "Cloud is just a business model" — but the application.
“We’re trying to focus on higher value things than just the plumbing,” he says.
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