Architecture at HUIT

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It’s been quite a while since my last post; lots has happened and it is past time to start talking about some of it.

Information technology at Harvard is changing a lot, as all of the planning that started when Anne Margulies came in as CIO is beginning to be implemented. We are well into the implementation of a new Student Information System, and the move from a classroom support technology from iSites to Canvas is happening (sometimes faster than we thought). All of these are good, and visible. But this is hardly all of it, or even the most (technically) interesting.

In some important ways, the biggest change is the move to the cloud. If done right, this will be pretty much transparent to the users of our services, but it is a huge change for the organization itself. It makes sense in lots of ways, but it takes new sets of skills and new ways of looking at the problems we are trying to solve. But we have committed to moving 75% of our services to the cloud in the next three years, which is a lot more than just testing the waters.

As we do this, it is also an opportunity to start putting some architectural principles in place. HUIT has traditionally treated most applications as “one-of-a-kind” entities, with machinery and underlying software stacks selected, optimized, and maintained for each system. When we were trying to squeeze all we could from each application, this made sense. But as computing power grows, the complexity of such an approach is overwhelming any advantage in performance we might be able to gain.

To help bring some regularity to this, I’ve convened a new group, the Architecture Decision Group. As the name implies, this is a group that comes together to make decisions about what the architecture is and will be going forward, at least for HUIT. If the wider Enterprise Architecture work was complete, this group would spend most of its time making sure that architecture was being followed. But since that architecture is in-process, this group is trying to decide on issues that need answers now. Since that wider effort is just starting, we needed something to make decisions now, so we can avoid the lack of regularity that is our current state.

The group is intentionally designed to be small and technical. Permanent members are the CTO (natch), the deputy CIO, the Managing Directors of Engineering and Architecture and Strategy and Planning, the Chief Information Security Officer, and the Director of Networking. Depending on the subject being discussed, we will ask other (technical) people to attend.

An important part of the work that we are doing is writing it down. We have a backlog list, and then a set of decisions and rationales for those decisions. All of this is kept on a publicly viewable wiki.

While the deliberations of the group are invitation-only, we are looking for ways that the more general engineering community can contribute. For any of the topics in the backlog, we invite opinions to be written up (on the wiki) and submitted. The group will read these, and those that seem particularly relevant may cause us to invite the writer to join for a session or two. We also invite comments on our decisions. The assumption is that nothing we decide is set in stone, but unless there is good reason to follow some other design everything that HUIT does should follow the decisions made by the group.

We have already madeĀ a number of decisions around the cloud and the network architecture that impact our move to the cloud; take a look and file a comment if you think we have not understood something important. We will next be looking at some of the patterns for deployment in the cloud; opinions on those topics are being sought. So take a look and get involved…this is the technical future of HUIT that is being worked out here, so we would love to hear from you.

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