Effat University has chosen and built on SunGard’s solution to ensure a digital campus that works efficiently and helps improve productivity for faculty and students alike everyday.
Effat University is a rarity.
Situated in Saudi Arabia, the women-only university prides itself on its unique nature in the country and a highly-devoted team that works to ensure that all services provided by the university to its students remains of the highest class.
“Last year – that is around January 2009 – we turned into a University. We used to be around 400 students, but now we are looking at more than 1,000 incoming students. We introduced three different faculties for three colleges – one on business, one College of Engineering and another for Humanities and Social Sciences,” says Mohammed Alam, IT manager at Effat.
This move brought about the need to change a lot internally – including elements of information technology and the major apps used in the university.
“One of the major requirements in becoming a university from the Ministry of Education (MoE) was that the institution must have a student information system, and that system should provide the relevant data and should also prove to be secure. There was also the need to provide different reports across different departments to evaluate progress for the semester, year or programme. This was also required from the MoE (to provide programme based reports),” says Alam.
Effat already had a digital campus solution in the form of SunGard’s Banner. However, this was an old version, and Alam and his team found that it was exactly suitable for the growing needs of an university.
“Since we were going to be a University and there were going to be a lot more courses and more students, we needed a lot of new features which were not available in the older version of the system. Even support was slow since it was an old release. Banner, in its new role, had many of the reporting features that were essential to us as well. All these factors contributed to our decision to move to the latest version of the solution,” says Alam.
Having decided, Effat moved from release 6 to 7, then to 8 and finally to 8.2.
“We could not move directly from 6 to 8. We could not ignore a major release. Therefore, we were required to move from one version to the other to reach the latest one. We had an annual contract with SunGard for the licences and on-line support. We had a discussion with the vendor to expand the contract to include more benefits, reduce cost and provide more support levels . All this was done in October last year,” says Alam.
The upgrade involved a 50 day implementation process, but due to proper planning, production upgrade was done in just seven days.
“In October, we started the test upgrade; once done it was given to our users to use for sometime. From November to January 15th, they used the system and got used to its features. During this time they were provided with on-line training to use the system as well. Once all this was done we decided to move to production. We called in an onsite consultant from the 24th of January till the 30th, and during this time we managed to complete the upgrade, and the entire system went live by the 31st January,’ says Alam.
The move also involved database migration. Effat was on Oracle 9i, but the new Banner 8.2 required them to be on Oracle 10G. This involved are Oracle apps server upgrade, forms upgrade and data migration along with the original system upgrade. Alam agrees that this was a major challenge for the University but they managed to succeed with the same within the timelines that had been set.
Though SunGard had the upper hand from day one, Alam states that they did go through a selection process and tested other solutions in the market before going with the incumbent vendor.
“SunGard’s dedication to providing all solutions related to higher education won the day for them. They have all the apps for a digital campus including document management, library management, single sign-on etc. They are focusing on education for the future and we were very satisfied with the way it integrated with other solutions,” says Alam.
Effat also implemented a students self-service module, which facilitated on-line registrations for the students. This module enables the University’s students to register online from anywhere for admissions. By automating a previously manual process, the module helped save on time and effort.
According to Alam, considering the additional benefits that have been provided by SunGard, the intrinsic cost-effectiveness of the solution and the features that it came with has has been provided with Effat all the return on investment (ROI) that could be required.
“Even before moving into production the solution had reduced a huge amount of the time and the cost that went into our processes. There are some fantastic features in the new solution that has helped us immensely in improving basic efficiency. Calculating this, along with what we were able to negotiate from SunGard in terms of the budget and the support options, it was definitely worth it,” says Alam.
The infrastructure story
Apart from basic digital campus solutions, the University had to investigate thoroughly its investments in the infrastructure front. Key among these is a major upgrade of the network used by Effat.
“We had heterogeneous hardware with different switches from the likes of 3Com, Nortel and Cisco from the beginning. Because of these different devices the entire network had become very difficult to manage and integration was becoming an issue. We also had a flat network structure – all the networks were on one node. This created more trouble in terms of bandwidth depletion and unclassified traffic. There was also a lack of security policies,” says Alam.
To address all this the team made a plan for a network upgrade. Due to budget constraints the project had to be delayed for two years, but the huge investment was given the green signal last year.
“We are dealing with this in three phases. As part of the first phase we created a new data centre, which had raised flooring, was fully fire protected and was physically very secure. We moved our server room to this data centre. The entire process when completed helped us in improving the security, reducing electricity and power consumption costs, since it was all done in a managed way. We consolidated our servers with the move and reduced them from the initial number of 27 to 16. These are all on HP. We currently use tape librabries for data storage but we are planning a move to SAN storage next year,” says Alam.
He continues, “The second phase involved changing the domain name when we became a University. This was a major change since all the critical apps had to be changed in the configuration. This included the learning management system, Blackboard, all server apps and nodes. This migration involved the second phase.”
“The third phase was all about security. We implemented a Juniper firewall in order to improve the strength of our security measures. The other challenge related to internet bandwidth. We had only 2MBPS bandwidth, provided via satellite. This was extremely slow, there was a huge cost associated to it and there was no support to augment it. To rectify thus we went with King AbdulAziz City for Science and Technology, which is the main ISU provider for higher educational institutions in the Kingdom. We got 20MBPS bandwidth and the cost was reduced by 50%,” says Alam.
The new arrangement also gave Effat additional services, including the availability of 1TB worth of storage and the ability to connect to all other universities in the Kingdom. Effat’s faculty and students now can effectively chat with other people in other institutions and access messages on a central portal.
“Once this was done, another aspect came up – that of active bandwidth management. We got a BlueCoat proxy appliance and have implemented it. The appliance has given us the ability to manage bandwidth by assigning different policies for different users, including faculty, higher management etc.,” says Alam.
Effat is currently in the process of changing its backbone, from different switches to a homogeneous set-up. After a lot of consideration, testing and research, studying of the market and looking into best practices in the Kingdom, the University chose Cisco as the best among vendors. It will soon be implementing Cisco’s Catalyst range of fully redundant distribution switches in every building, which will also make it 10G ready. It will also enable the University to move to a three-layer network, from its current flat network.
“This will set the foundation not just for current needs but also for the future, for moving more online, including services such as video conferencing, IP telephony etc. We have planned this project keeping in mind the needs of the future. Other universities are already moving in this direction and next year, or the year after that, if the need for this is felt then we do not have to reinvest in anything, we already have all the requirements in place,” says Alam.
“The backbone will be changed. Each building will be dual linked for redundancy and to do away with downtime. Once this is up, we will be able to provide 20GB speed. We will have multi domain authentication, quality of service, power over ethernet, port security, remote analyser, and 20GB support. This is the third phase. Domain migration, increased Internet bandwidth, firewall proxy and storage, LAN upgrade is all part of the third phase. By the end of the year this will be done,” says Alam.
Effat University has also remained very conscious of its back-up and disaster recovery needs. Tapes are stored both onsite and in the bank. Critical apps and the database are constantly backed-up and the University constantly tests its machines for validity. It is also doing back-up in the space provided by KACST.
In 2011, with the entire network upgrade completed, the University plans to move onto a unified digital campus.
“Some of the apps that we use for our digital campus – like the library management system, Blackboard and some other apps – are not talking to each other. A unified system will integrate these elements and provide single sign-on. We are looking to implement this next year,” says Alam.
There is also a plan for IP telephony, video conferencing and SAN storage for the next year. Effat will also implement SunGard’s Faculty and Advisory Self Service along with obtaining the licence for the Digital Campus Academy – an on-line training module for Banner users.
“When I joined IT did not function in any structured way. There were no well definied units, it was all mixed up and there was no clearly defined career path for the IT team. I have tried to make this into a functional organisation by dividing IT into different units and have tried to hire the best from the market to ensure that the team has the right leaders with the right capabilities to take us to the next level. I believe this is key to the success of the organisation – the right people with the right skills,” says Alam.
With these in place, Effat University is all set to reach new heights.
QUICK LOOK AT EFFAT UNIVERSITY
Effat University is the living legacy of Queen Effat’s vision for education, exemplifying the spirit of Islam in its quest for knowledge, truth, and enlightenment.
Committed to constructive engagement with the whole of human culture, Effat University aims to educate tomorrow’s diversity of leaders at an international standard by providing an interdisciplinary environment conducive to inspired teaching, learning, and research.
Operating under the umbrella of King Faisal’s Non-Profit Charitable Organisation, Effat University is strengthened by the legacy of its founder, Queen Effat Al-Thunayyan.
Queen Effat and King Faisal were instrumental in the development of education in Saudi Arabia beginning with the establishment of Dar Al Hanan School for girls in 1955.
Their legacy continues into the 21st century through the commitment of their sons and daughters who serve on the Effat University Board of Trustees.