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Ensuring educational excellence with centralised monitoring

Shaken by the COVID-19 induced collapse in international student revenue, campuses at Australian universities are buzzing with ideas about how they will survive in the future.

Compounded by the pandemic, our higher education institutions are now even more dependent on their high-performing and 100 per cent available IT infrastructures. It is not just classic IT management their IT departments need to be across these days either, as digital transformation has increased the extent of their responsibilities.

Even before the pandemic, universities were moving towards a virtual learning environment, where course materials and books were being made available on the internet and lectures and workshops were offered through web portals. And now that non-IT systems such as building control or laboratory management are beginning to fall under the IT department’s control, their remit is not only expanding but all of these disparate systems are becoming more challenging to manage efficiently.

Since IT has become so critical to today’s educational institutions, any failures or outages may result in serious consequences for students, researchers as well as teaching and administration staff. IT outages can prevent students from accessing course materials, endanger essential research projects and paralyse the work of the administration and enrollment functions.

To be able to effectively manage such complex and disparate infrastructures, and to prevent any potential IT issues, the simple solution is network monitoring. This will provide university IT teams with a comprehensive overview of their entire infrastructure to ensure performance and availability. But, due to the structures and the history of our higher education sector, IT managers face a very specific set of challenges.

IT environments at educational and research institutions are often distributed across multiple locations. This may have structural or historical reasons, but in any event, it is a major challenge for IT. Devices and applications must always be available at all locations and provide the required performance, data exchange and communication needed.

Since most educational institutions have been all but forced by COVID-19 to leave the traditional way of on-site education behind, learning content is now available online at any time and from anywhere. Students can work in virtual study spaces to discuss and collaborate on projects. The use of video-conferencing has become increasingly common as a way of communicating lesson plans or instructions for assignments.

With so many students accessing a university’s network, bandwidth usage can easily be exceeded and cause slowdowns or outages if it’s not being monitored.

These virtual learning environments at Australian universities require full availability of online services around the clock. Therefore university IT departments are required to work in shifts or designate someone as a standby, which is an extra burden on the already busy IT support staff. It is not unusual to find tight staffing situations due to budget constraints, which increases the risk of outages for core services.

The impact of limited budgets

In educational institutions, homegrown open-source solutions have commonly been developed to save money. These are often built by students, who bring the appropriate insider knowledge and are considerably less expensive than a software license. This becomes problematic when these students leave the university and take their expertise with them.

Over time, homegrown software can become a barely manageable juggernaut that requires immense effort to operate and evolve. Also, there are often a variety of systems like this, which were set up by different departments for various purposes. Generating a central overview of the entire IT infrastructure from all these systems is ridiculously challenging for the IT department without centralised IT monitoring in place.

It’s not just software that’s the issue at universities either, as often older hardware is used for budget reasons while new, powerful devices are used elsewhere. These need to run seamlessly side by side, but this can cause IT headaches.

Continuous improvement

A suitable monitoring solution not only ensures 24/7 uptime but it also continuously collects data on the state of the IT infrastructure. This information can form the basis for medium and long-term infrastructure improvements. Bottlenecks can be identified and removed and appliances, capacity and bandwidth can be purchased and implemented as soon as they are needed, which helps to minimise unnecessary IT spending.

Relieving pressure on IT staff

Ensuring availability and performance around the clock requires being constantly up-to-date about the status of IT systems and to be alerted immediately in case of any issues. If a monitoring solution can provide flexible and location-independent access and alarm features, it can really put the IT staff at ease. They no longer need to be on-site 24/7 but can shift work outside normal office hours and even monitor what is going on from their home.

The takeout

Australian university IT departments know just how important a secure, uninterrupted IT infrastructure is for quality education provision, the success of world-leading research projects and the smooth running of the administration functions.

It goes without saying that Australian universities will survive, as long as they continue to adapt, invest in robust technology and are willing to be both innovative and measured in this uncertain time.

Daniel Sultana is Asia Pacific regional director at Paessler.

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