AWS Public Sector Blog

Lessons Learned from Migrating Mission-Critical Academic and Administrative Systems to the Cloud

On-demand compute, storage, and database services help higher education IT teams build secure environments for mission-critical applications, freeing them to focus on student success.

It’s more important than ever to provide students with resources where they are, so students have access to everything from their Learning Management System (LMS) to payment systems with just one log on.

Idaho State University (ISU) reached a decision point where they needed to refresh their hardware locally or look to the cloud as an alternative solution to host their LMS. They had been hosting Moodle, an open-source learning platform, on premises for ten years. After exploring the available options, they made the decision to migrate Moodle to the AWS Cloud.

By bringing their campus onto the cloud, ISU was able to reduce IT support costs and free staff from technical work, while still providing the services their students need to be successful.

“We explored what we could do, and we made the decision that the cloud brought increased cost savings, better redundancy, and allowed us to offload the maintenance required to manage our existing hardware. The cloud was well worth the initial effort,” said Blake Beck, Director of Educational Technologies and eISU at ISU.

The eISU department is responsible for the management of the school’s LMS (Moodle) and other technology associated with teaching and learning for 13,000 unique student users at ISU. Ninety-six percent of the University’s courses utilize Moodle for assignments, testing, and course materials.

At ISU, they learned a few tips during their migration to help other colleges and universities looking to migrate systems to the cloud.

  1. Let go of the way you think it should be. “Our biggest hurdle was getting over how we thought things should be based on how we did it in the past. Once we let go of the way we thought it had to be and embraced the AWS strategy, things finally moved in the right direction and everything fell into place,” said Blake.
  2. Get others on board early. One of the challenges the department had as pioneers was working with their own staff. By getting others comfortable with the cloud, they began a cultural shift inside the university. Other departments, like security, networking, and backup, recognized that more services were heading this way in the future.
  3. Enjoy the simple things. “Initially, when we sized our front-end web servers, we thought three web servers would be more than adequate, but we needed more to have the ability to process all requests. So we spun up a fourth and then a fifth web server in a matter of minutes. That was the beauty— it was as simple as can be,” commented Blake. Being able to spin up and load balance quickly was key for the department. They did not have to buy another front end web server, instead they had high compute capacity and enough storage for whatever their needs were in minutes.
  4. Focus on student experience. ISU already provided a positive experience for its students, so they wanted to maintain that for students and staff without a noticeable shift in the system. They pulled together a steering committee of faculty to have an open forum for comments. They wanted a seamless transition, keeping the stellar uptime their students expected.

ISU migrated Moodle from their on-premises server to Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2). Additionally, they use Amazon Aurora, AWS Lambda, Amazon CloudWatch, and Amazon Simple Notification Service (Amazon SNS). For networking, they are using Amazon Route 53 to host their subdomain and have set up a VPN for secure connections to do maintenance on the EC2 instances. They are also using AWS Identity and Access Management (IAM) and AWS CloudTrail to help implement security access and monitoring.

ISU saw huge gains from their migration to the cloud behind the scenes, including cost savings, redundancy, reliability, and a better disaster recovery posture. “We took a big leap forward for us in redundancy and disaster recovery. We are a much better position than we ever were hosting on premises,” said Blake. “A water leak in the data center could have brought us to our knees. We were taking a gamble. We have made a quantum leap forward.”

With two successful semesters completed, the university is looking for other ways to leverage the cloud on campus. Take a tour of how other higher education institutions use AWS campus-wide, from classrooms to dorm rooms and beyond.