Archive for the 'Harvard IT' Category

Architecture at HUIT


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.

End of the year ramblings…


It is always hard to believe that yet another year has passed. It has been a rich one, with the emergence of HarvardX and edX, major changes in the Harvard Library, and a lot of work being done at Harvard IT.I taught another edition of the course that first brought me to Harvard (Distributed Computing) and the course that I helped introduce into Harvard (Privacy and Technology). A pretty full year.

What I find most interesting in looking back isn’t any of these, though. What I find most interesting is how IT is changing at Harvard, and in higher education more generally. The advent of on-line education is part of this change, but only a part. The full picture is far more complex, and far more radical, than just the advent of MOOCs (which, given all the attention to MOOCs, would seem difficult).

The baseline of IT in higher education really isn’t much different than IT in any other large organization. The goal has been to help run the business (and higher education does have major components that are like a business) and provide basic networking and computing infrastructure for the rest of the business. So Harvard IT runs a large set of business applications that are like any other business’ applications, having to do with payroll, and human resources, and budgeting. We also provide networking, email, and calendar functions for pretty much everyone associated with central administration and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, much like every other IT organization supplies such services to the rest of the business.

Of course, higher education IT has always needed to provide some extras to help with the mission of the university. The most obvious example of this is the iSites application, which is used to run a large number of Harvard courses. Such academic technology is an important part of what higher education IT does, but has historically been a minor piece of the work, especially when measured in terms of the amount of money invested. Historically, between 2/3 and 3/4 of the IT budget has been spent on support of administrative computing, with the rest going to infrastructure and academic support.

This is going to have to change, because the use of computing (and storage) within higher education (in general) and Harvard (in particular) is changing. Computing is becoming increasingly central to both the teaching and research mission of Harvard. As digital mechanisms become more central to the core missions of the University, the role of IT is going to have to change. Rather than being part of the administrative background, IT is going to be part of everything that is going on.

Courses have, for some time, used computing to allow posting of readings and assignments, but we are moving to a time when a course will include streamed lectures, on-line discussions, and the construction of digital artifacts by the students for evaluation of their learning. Research in the sciences has long required access to large amounts of computing and storage, but that need is now moving to the social sciences and the humanities. Just take a look at what Jeffrey Schnapp is doing at the metaLab, or the way that Peter Der Manuelian approaches egyptology.The need for large amounts of computing and storage is rapidly increasing, everywhere in the University.

This may become the newly expanded job of IT, or it may just require coordination with IT. In either case, the job of HUIT is going to be very different in the next couple of years. Our investment portfolio will, in all likelihood, invert. What we do now will, I predict, take up between 1/4 and 1/3 of our budget, and the rest will be taken up in support of research and teaching. Partly this will be done by savings that can be extracted in the administrative work that we are doing, as the cost of machinery goes down. Partly this will be done by adding to the investment in IT, but this will be hard in the current budget climate.

Most of this will occur as we decide to do less of one thing and more of another. There are tasks that we have been doing locally that may be outsourced or otherwise moved elsewhere. I suspect that there is a lot that can be gained from the commercial cloud providers, and other software-as-a-service providers. Some of this will be done by making more of what we do self-service; this can both decrease the cost of the IT group and empower the users, but has to be done carefully to insure that service is not degraded. The way we work now is going to have to change.

I find such a prospect invigorating. Doing the same thing has never appealed to me, so the prospect of major change in the way things are done makes me anticipate the new year. It will be interesting, it will be challenging, but it won’t be the same and it won’t be boring. And who can ask for more than that?