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UPenn CIO: Cloud Is Here, Resistance Is Futile

At the University of Pennsylvania, CIO Tom Murphy is looking to bring a cloud-first philosophy to the 277-year-old institution. To get there, he needs buy-in from students and faculty.

Scott Ferguson

November 27, 2017

8 Min Read
UPenn CIO: Cloud Is Here, Resistance Is Futile

As Tom Murphy sees it, the University of Pennsylvania central IT department needs to get good at cloud computing -- now.

With more than $150 million in technology projects currently underway at the 277-year-old Ivy League university, Murphy and his team of 275 IT pros have no less a task than a complete overhaul of the infrastructure, which will mostly move the cloud.

"We have a cloud-first program. One of my points of emphasis is that the cloud is here and we've got to get good at the cloud and it is part of our digitalization plans," said Murphy, who was appointed as UPenn's first ever school-wide CIO about five years ago. He moved into academia after working in the hospitality, travel and pharmaceutical industries.

"Cloud has come and resistance is futile," Murphy told Enterprise Cloud News recently. "In the future, as the cloud becomes a norm, and as IT becomes a service, why do they need us for central IT if IT is a service, and they can pay for it as they need it? This is why we are going to be the first movers. The internal IT organization at Penn is going to become the experts at cloud."

Figure 1: The University of Pennsylvania is now cloud-first (Source: Wikicommons) The University of Pennsylvania is now cloud-first
(Source: Wikicommons)

Murphy's experience with digitally transforming businesses stretches back to his days attending a management training program at Marriot. At the time, the chain was looking to automate the front desk -- rooms keys still hung behind the clerks -- and he was asked to be in charge of that system.

It was there Murphy first figured out he liked technology and could manage people.

"My talents are people and project management, so I grew up on that side of IT -- you wouldn't want me configuring your servers," Murphy noted.

Changing UPenn
Those people skills are what eventually brought Murphy to UPenn, which had an antiquated and federated IT system.

Even though he took over the central IT facility -- called Information Systems and Computing or ISC -- most of the 900 IT administrators on campus report into the leaders of the individual schools or centers. The university itself is made up of 12 schools, including The Wharton School and the Annenberg School for Communication, which includes about 25,000 full- and part-time students and more than 4,700 faculty members.

There are also enormous research facilities on campus, and UPenn is involved in nearly $1 billion worth of federal grants to fund those programs.

"The only way to get things done is through collaboration and relationships, and you have to have credibility. It's about getting people to follow you because they want to, not because they have to," Murphy said.

Then there was the technology Murphy and his team had to sort through.

UPenn had its own data center, but also relied on a mainframe. There were some 14 email systems that were not integrated. Some of the university's major research still relied on paper, with information and data stored in old-fashioned filing cabinets. On the security front, UPenn lacked basics, such as a firewall.

Embracing the cloud
However, Murphy had the support of UPenn's provost, executive vice president and president to make changes.

The first of these was a plan Murphy called Cloud First. It called for a significant cloud investment, especially in a multicloud strategy which included Amazon Web Services Inc. and Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT) Azure. The university is also investing in Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) Cloud Platform, but not as heavily. (See Multicloud Can Lead to Management Nightmare – Survey.)

"About 12 to 18 months ago, we started a program called Cloud First. I took 15 of some of the strongest platform, infrastructure, and app dev folks I have and put them on a team and told them 'take us to the cloud, learn everything there is to know,'" Murphy said.

Those lessons were put to the test when Murphy and his team decided it was time to standardize the university's email system. Instead of 14 disparate systems, Murphy presented an choice between Microsoft Office 365, along with Azure for support, and Google's G Suite, which included Gmail.

Murphy's approach was to pull all the stakeholders together and present the various pros and cons of the two email platforms. He hired a project manager to facilitate the conversation and brought in consultants. He explained:

They got a vote. That's the only way to do this, a collaborative decision. And it kind of changed the way they saw ISC. It wasn't us forcing this down their throats. It was ISC facilitating a conversation about the future. What I used to my advantage was the knowledge that many staff and many faculty -- and remember in Higher Ed, the faculty really runs the place -- couldn't calendar effectively. If I was in the school of engineering, I couldn't email someone in the school of nursing because they were two entirely different email addresses … everyone settled on Office 365 and we moved as a unit.

From there, the Cloud First plan took off. Murphy and his team are now closing down the old data center, which included 10,000 square feet of raised floor, and consolidating it into a much smaller data center, which will mainly support research since that data has to stay local.

Next page: Getting Cloud First right Getting Cloud First right
"The future is the cloud, not having a bunch of raised floor locally," Murphy quipped.

The ISC team also created its first native cloud application using AWS and Amazon tools -- a portal for alumni giving, which was deemed important since it's how the school connects to the larger community outside the immediate university. Other projects include a new student administration system using software from Ellucian, and standardizing payroll and human resources through a Workday software-as-a-service (SaaS) offering.

Figure 2: UPenn CIO Tom Murphy (Source: TBMC) UPenn CIO Tom Murphy
(Source: TBMC)

Throughout this process, Murphy has applied the philosophy of running IT as a business, which is preached by the Technology Business Management (TBM) Council, where he's a member. He has also used software provided by Apptio -- TBM is an outgrowth of the company's CIO advisory board -- to show how ISC is spending money and where it's going. (See A CIO 'Renaissance' Needs the Cloud.)

Since the various schools and departments that make up UPenn pay ISC for tech services, it's critical to be transparent about where the dollars are spent.

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A look at the future
Eventually, all this leads up to a digital transformation of the school based on microservices ISC can deploy throughout UPenn. In an ideal situation, Murphy envisions an app store run by the university and accessible to everyone:

I have an accounting clerk who starts one day and there's an app store -- the Penn app store -- and that accounting clerk needs to provision email, they need to provision the access and identity management, they need access to [accounts receivable] or [accounts payable] depending on what their role is. They are also going to do some payroll in support of other institutions, so, depending on their credentials, this is what they can get into. And instead of managing these monolithic software applications, we're just managing a set of containerized, tiny modules that are based on your title and your identity, and you have those available to you … In the store, you pull down what you need and when [you] leave the job as an accounting clerk to be a payroll clerk, all that stuff is automatically de-provisioned and you sit down in a new chair and go to the store and everything is there for you. It's a microservice environment and it's all cloud enabled.

However, security is the more immediate concern. With the open atmosphere of academia, putting in a standard monitoring tool is more difficult. Once again, it's a matter of transparency with the faculty.

"I need to adapt and secure the best I can within the construct of how the university operates," Murphy said.

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— Scott Ferguson, Editor, Enterprise Cloud News. Follow him on Twitter @sferguson_LR.

About the Author(s)

Scott Ferguson

Managing Editor, Light Reading

Prior to joining Enterprise Cloud News, he was director of audience development for InformationWeek, where he oversaw the publications' newsletters, editorial content, email and content marketing initiatives. Before that, he served as editor-in-chief of eWEEK, overseeing both the website and the print edition of the magazine. For more than a decade, Scott has covered the IT enterprise industry with a focus on cloud computing, datacenter technologies, virtualization, IoT and microprocessors, as well as PCs and mobile. Before covering tech, he was a staff writer at the Asbury Park Press and the Herald News, both located in New Jersey. Scott has degrees in journalism and history from William Paterson University, and is based in Greater New York.

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