University of Nicosia in Cyprus turns to the cloud to better serve its students
The University of Nicosia (UNIC) is the largest university in Cyprus, and it is located in Nicosia, the capital. UNIC is a global university with more than 12,000 students from over 70 countries. Beyond Nicosia, UNIC has a presence in 18 additional cities across the globe. It’s the largest university in southern Europe that teaches primarily in English. To better serve its students, UNIC turned to Amazon Web Services (AWS) for reliability, cost savings, and innovation.
Dmitry Apraksin is the Chief Information Officer (CIO) of UNIC. Apraksin has been with the university for 24 years. When he first joined the staff, they relied on physical servers to power all of the school’s functions — a standard practice at the time. With regular maintenance and updates, physical servers met the university’s daily needs, although maintaining them was both labor-intensive and costly.
In 2012, when an unexpected, island-wide blackout caused almost all of Cyprus to lose power, Apraksin realized something had to change. Of this incident, Apraksin recounts, “Power collapsed. We realized that even if we have a data center, when there is no electricity, it can only work for a limited period of time. We needed to improve our reliability. We needed to not depend on something external.”
It was at this point that Apraksin and the rest of the team at UNIC decided to evaluate their cloud computing options.
The journey from on premises to the cloud
Apraksin says that with Amazon Web Services (AWS), “we initially migrated our web infrastructure. Then, when our university got very deep into distance learning, we set up our Learning Management System (LMS) on AWS. Now, we can scale up and scale down depending on our needs. We don’t need to replace the server, and we don’t need additional staff for maintenance. Even with the cost of AWS, we are still saving.”
Ali Tayari, a Data Scientist and Machine Learning Analyst at UNIC, explains that “one of the biggest problems facing Cyprus is bandwidth. AWS was a perfect resource to address this issue, especially with Amazon CloudFront in any part of the world.”
Switching to the cloud has had an immediate and far-reaching impact on how the university is able to operate globally. Tayari describes a common problem they encountered before switching to the cloud, “We had several hundred students internationally. Since our systems were hosted locally, one of the barriers for us was, every time our systems were going through maintenance or there was a problem with the server, access was interrupted.”
After migrating to AWS, however, Tayari says, “Now, we don’t have to worry much. We don’t have to acquire a new infrastructure to implement the latest millisecond changes to our students in New York City, for example. It was a big push for us to go to AWS. We’ve been building our entire enterprise on it.”
Advancing and updating UNIC’s infrastructure has been a pleasant experience with room for Tayari and the rest of the team to innovate on behalf of their students. Tayari notes that about one year after completing the university’s migration in 2018, “We realized our system was mature enough that we could even create a new intranet for our students. All we had to worry about was developing. After that, we never had to worry about the setup that we’ve had for the past two years, which has been a tremendous help for us.”
One improvement that Tayari and the rest of the team were able to make included a chat bot for the students’ use. It’s a complex feat that appears simple for the end-user; the chat bot is able to effortlessly take in myriad student questions and give appropriate answers with little-to-no wait time. To achieve this, the university uses Amazon DynamoDB to manage the chat bot’s active sessions, dialog contexts, and user settings. Tayari notes, “Since we need dynamic, real-time, and volatile storage of data with consistent access, we use DynamoDB.” Afterwards, the data is stored using Amazon Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3). Tayari explains, “Our chat bot needs to respond very quickly while ensuring that the end user won’t be stuck waiting. We’re streaming all of the logs we have and all at the same time. We didn’t want to spend too much time capturing the data, so we’re using Amazon Athena to go through the logs and analyze them on demand with little effort.”
Getting the chat bot up and running was not an overnight process, but parts of it moved very quickly. “We needed the system to get up and running in a matter of weeks, not months. We use AWS Lambda instead of having to spin up an entire instance for a small amount of functionalities,” says Tayari.
UNIC’s plans for the future
Looking to the future, UNIC plans to expand the chat bot’s user base to include the entire UNIC “family,” starting with the faculty, employees, and eventually, prospective students. The chat bot may even become a virtual assistant tool for the university’s recruiters. UNIC’s planned growth won’t stop there. Apraksin says that with the switch to the cloud came “scalability, reliability, saved maintenance costs, and faster launch times.” Apraksin adds that, in measurable terms, the switch to the cloud has provided UNIC with more resources including time. “Now, we can concentrate on developing more code and not in supporting data centers and doing all of the other work that takes up 20-30% of the workers’ time.”
UNIC’s internal landscape looks markedly different than when Apraksin started more than two decades ago. Today, he says, “all of our web is in the cloud. We have over 40 websites, and our intranet applications are gradually shifting to the cloud. Locally, we only have two systems. All of our mission critical applications will be moved to the cloud.”